US-led coalition ally targets State Department-funded Syrian Arab activists

Syrian civil society activists in the country's largely Kurdish northeast are being arrested and held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, possibly as part of a campaign of intimidation.

al-monitor A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces stands amid the ruins of buildings near the Clock Square in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 18, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Erik De Castro.

Apr 7, 2020

In August of 2019, Hasan Kassab, a 27-year-old civil society activist and medical student, married his sweetheart Rawan in Raqqa, Syria. “There were 350 people at our wedding, there was dancing and singing. We had so much fun,” Kassab said, recalling their party at the popular Greek House restaurant on the banks of the Euphrates River.

Video footage from the event shows the groom with a neatly trimmed beard in a dark gray suit and pink tie, his hands nervously clasped before him. The bride leans toward him smiling. She wears a white lace dress with gauze sleeves. A crystal-studded tiara crowns her dark hair. Family members from Kassab’s al-Bosaraya tribe and Rawan’s Baytra tribe mill around with joyful expressions.

Their euphoria was short-lived. The next day at 6 p.m., armed militants from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) raided their home in Tabqa, 25 miles west of Raqqa. “They told me, ‘You are with ISIS,’" Kassab said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

“They began hitting me, and my wife started screaming. They beat and kicked her, too, before handcuffing me and hauling me off in a white van,” Kassab told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview from Novi Sad, Serbia, where he studies medicine.

Kassab said he was taken to a military base in Raqqa. “There were lots of soldiers there," he said. "Americans and SDF. I was taken to a room and interrogated by 10 uniformed Americans for one hour. They asked, ‘What is your connection to ISIS? Are you funneling money to ISIS?’ And I responded, ‘How can I be ISIS? I am working for a project funded by the US Department of State.’”

After being jailed first in Tabqa then in Kobani, and undergoing eight separate interrogations by US coalition officials on US bases, Kassab was told by one of his American inquisitors Oct. 2, “You are OK. We are sorry. You can leave. The past is horrible. Forget this and continue with your life.” On Oct. 29, he was finally freed.

Kassab is not alone.

Since last summer, when Kassab was detained, at least seven other Syrian Arabs working for nongovernmental organizations, typically involved in humanitarian, educational and infrastructure projects financed by the State Department, were detained by the SDF and its special forces arm, known as Yektineyen Anti Teror in Kurdish, or YAT, and interrogated by US forces.

The most recent round of detentions came in February and early March, when four Syrian Arab civil society activists — either currently or previously funded by the State Department’s Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, or START — were detained by YAT in separate raids. Two of them had been detained once before last year and interrogated by coalition forces over their supposed Islamic State connections last year.

Families were denied information about why their loved ones were taken and where they were being held until all four were freed April 2.

The question of why US coalition officials would be involved in the detentions of Syrian Arab civil society activists, vetted, among others, by the National Counterterrorism Center and sponsored by START, on the grounds that they are Islamic State operatives is an increasingly pressing one.

The rash of detentions is shaking trust among Arab civilians traumatized by years of Islamic State rule, as they struggle to rebuild their lives under the Kurdish-led autonomous administration, and denting the credibility of the United States.

In response to Al-Monitor’s April 1 queries about why the men were being held and whether their detentions had been instigated by the US-led coalition or the SDF, coalition spokesman Myles Caggins wrote: “The Coalition shares intelligence with our SDF security partners, specifically for anti-ISIS operations. The men were released from SDF custody on April 2.”

Al-Monitor learned that the men were taken to a coalition base near Shaddadi in the province of Hasakah, where they were interrogated by American security personnel over their alleged ties to the jihadis.

For Jamal Mabrouk, it was his second time. In October, the 61-year-old construction engineer, who worked with Kassab in the same US-funded program, was dragged out of his home as a coalition helicopter hovered above. He was jailed for two weeks and subjected to questioning by coalition forces.

“My father is an honest man," Mabrouk’s son, Nazim, who lives in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor. "He has nothing to do with ISIS, and everybody knows this.”

He confirmed that his father had been interrogated numerous times by US coalition forces in Shaddadi. “His psychological state is very bad," he said. "He is ill and he cannot talk to you.”

Officials from START and the State Departments' Bureau for Near East Affairs did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.

Three Kurdish officials linked to the SDF and the autonomous administration told Al-Monitor that all of the detentions were carried out upon orders from the US-led coalition. “The reason is that they support ISIS, or ISIS sleeper cells, and we detained them upon the request of the coalition forces because they do not cut their ties with ISIS and they keep working with them,” one of the officials said.

Framing and jailing

In interviews with over a dozen activists and stakeholders in US-funded civil society projects in northeastern Syria, two theories as to why the Arab activists are being targeted prevailed. One is that the SDF and the coalition are being fed flawed intelligence, including by fellow Arabs, sometimes to settle personal and professional scores.

Civil society activists drew parallels between anonymous security reports used as a basis for the recent detentions, and the culture of snitching incentivized by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which was then embraced by the Islamic State.

The other theory is that the Kurdish-led autonomous administration is uncomfortable with the perceived power and reach accrued by the activists through US-funded projects and is seeking to subject them to their own authority through intimidation tactics.

“The SDF’s vetting of the population relies heavily on intel coming from local interlocutors, who often feed them with misleading information," said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group. "Acting on poor intelligence coming from often unreliable interlocutors has led the SDF to often mistakenly direct resources to address erroneous reports of Islamic State connections while missing actual Islamic State activity.”

“A second issue,” Khalifa said, “is that the SDF is quite suspicious of civil society. The nature of the work of NGOs is foreign to the area and their attempt to operate independently from the formal SDF structures makes the administration uncomfortable and more conducive to acting on misguided reports.”

Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, shared similar findings.

“Our understanding is that many of the arrests [of civil society activists] — certainly the ones in 2019 — the ones we followed up on, happened because there were internal disagreements with the autonomous administration and the local councils. So, people would have gotten into fights with the authorities and then authorities would have arrested them in an arbitrary manner.”

Kayyali continued, “We have been in contact with the SDF and the US-led coalition on a number of issues, and we faced the same experience whereby they weren’t very responsive.

“There is a lack of transparency in terms of formal communication," she said. "For us that translates into a lack of understanding about what the US-led coalition is doing on its own initiative and what the SDF is doing on its own initiative.”

Another problem, according to two knowledgeable sources familiar with coalition decision-making, is that coalition officials’ faith in the SDF is so unshakeable that intelligence provided by SDF officials is often taken at face value.

“People looked to the Americans as saviors,” said a detained activist whose organization was funded by START. “At the beginning, people thought that only the Assad regime could provide services. We opened a center for safe childhood, where we provided educational services and psychological support, games. People began to feel that [our] organizations have a fundamental, positive impact on society.”  

The activist, like three other US-funded detainees interviewed by Al-Monitor, spoke anonymously because of a fear of retribution.

Another activist who was detained last year described his ordeal in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor. SDF forces “blindfolded us, handcuffed us. We were transported by military vehicles, we didn’t know where we were going, because of the blindfolds.”

"At the beginning, we were taken to a room that had detainees accused of being ISIS, [Syrian rebel opposition] Free Syrian Army and regime agents. When I entered and saw the ISIS people and the other sorts, I was terrified. ‘What have I done to land myself here, in this totally undignified way?’ I thought.”

During his questioning, a Kurdish interrogator asked him, “Are you supporting terrorism? Are you supporting [Turkish-backed] Euphrates Shield [forces], or the Syrian regime’s military intelligence?”

The activist responded, “OK, if I work for ISIS, how do I also work for the regime?’’

Kassab echoed his indignation, noting that he was briefly detained by the Islamic State in 2014 over his alleged complicity in smuggling a female activist from Raqqa into Turkey.

Two of the other four activists interviewed by Al-Monitor said they had received death threats from the Islamic State for their civil society work.

All of the detained activists said local and coalition interrogators treated them with professionalism and did not resort to violence.

One activist said, “One should be honest. We were not beaten or tortured. Maybe some light slaps from the jail guards, hardly mentionable.”

Rebuilding Raqqa

The battle for Raqqa, the erstwhile capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, raged from June till September 2017. The city was pulverized by massive and unremitting coalition airstrikes. “Raqqa is the most destroyed city in modern times,” said Donatella Rovera, a researcher for Amnesty International.

A priority of the coalition was to restore basic services so civilians could return and rebuild their homes, in part to stave off a potential jihadi resurgence. Kurds and Americans believed that turning to locals, including influential tribal leaders, to help with the effort was critical to winning hearts and minds among Sunni Arabs who dominate the area.

Mazlum Kobane, the SDF’s commander in chief, is an ardent advocate of this approach.

Pressure on Arab civil society activists, however, flies in the face of such efforts, said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“There was already a degree of distrust in the SDF and its civilian administration in Raqqa prior to the arrests among the population, which perceives the administration and SDF as controlled by people from outside their region,” she said.

Tsurkov was likely alluding to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the outlawed militant group that has been fighting the Turkish army for the past 36 years, initially for independence and now for Kurdish autonomy. Many of the Syrian Kurdish cadres who currently lead the civilian and military arms of the autonomous administration joined the PKK when its now imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, ran his insurgency from Syria with the blessings of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez.

Coughing up for the cause

From fat cats to factory workers, the PKK deems it every Kurd’s national duty to chip in for the cause. It would not be unusual if like-minded cadres in northeast Syria expected foreign funding for projects to be channeled to entities they either operate themselves or that are owned by individuals who are willing to cooperate with them. Such practices are construed as patriotism, not nepotism.

Kassab said that this “PKK mentality” assailed his organization, the Furat program, when it issued a public tender to pave three streets in Raqqa in the summer of 2019. He said the initial tranche of the US-funded project to restore the South Corniche, North Corniche and the Hazima roads was awarded June 6 to a prominent Syrian Arab contractor.

In July, Layla Mostafa, the Kurdish co-chair of the Raqqa Civilian Council, told his then-boss, Mabrouk, that they would have to cancel the tender, worth around $1 million, and give the contract to Shimal, a company allegedly linked to the autonomous administration and the object of corruption claims in anti-SDF media.

“Jamal told her, ‘We can’t do this, it’s against the rules,’ and soon after I was arrested. Then, on Oct. 2, it was Jamal’s turn,” Kassab said.

That wasn’t the pair’s first run-in with the Raqqa Civilian Council, Kassab said. In August 2018, Furat and Enmaa al-Karamah, another START-supported local NGO, put out a tender to procure transformers. The council told them to award it to a company called AVA, according to Kassab. “We refused,” he said.

He said that it’s no coincidence that the chairman of the board of Enmaa al-Karamah, Ahmad Mousa al-Hashloum, was, like Mabrouk, also detained twice: first in August 2019 and most recently in February — for his alleged ties to the Islamic State.

Another activist agreed that the autonomous administration was uneasy about their role: “At the beginning, the Raqqa Civilian Council was upset about the US partnership with the NGOs, and that the NGOs take over some of the roles of state institutions. We tried to explain that our role and their role was complementary. Afterward, they accepted the idea, but according to what we understood, they didn’t like the fact that it was a relationship that was outside their control and they couldn’t supervise its creation or development.”

Yet another activist who was caught in the sweep said, “We felt the pressure through the signing of certain agreements, or memorandums of understanding, between us and the government, represented by the Raqqa Civilian Council. If, for example, we didn’t implement the agenda of a specific party, obstacles would pop up. 'You can’t do this, you can’t do that, this is prohibited, you need to give the [tender] to this company,'"

The Raqqa Civilian Council’s Mostafa did not respond to Al-Monitor’s written requests for comment.

State impotence?

Abdel Kader Moahed, the head of the autonomous administration’s humanitarian affairs department, denied that the detentions of the Arab activists had anything to do with pressure to give contracts to companies designated by the Raqqa Civilian Council.

Moahed told Al-Monitor in an April 1 telephone interview: “It’s prohibited for anyone to interfere in [NGO] work, or for anyone to impose on them any particular option or anything else. We have 200 NGOs and charities, including 34 international NGOs. All of them work with total independence, without interference or pressure from anyone.”

Moahed went on, “Those four people [the activists] were arrested by American forces. There was no interference or relationship [with them refusing certain tenders]. Quite the opposite. We’re really trying to push to get them freed. Yesterday I was in a meeting with the State Department, on Skype. The first thing I brought up was the issue of those detainees, and I asked the State Department to intervene on their behalf.”

One of the detained activists confirmed Moahed’s efforts to secure their release. “It wasn't in his power as a civilian official,” the activist said.

The State Department had also pressed for the activists’ release, according to sources with knowledge of the affair. But last summer, coalition officials initially told the State Department that there were credible grounds for detaining the activists, a source said.

Moahed said, “The SDF and the coalition are taking these decisions together, and these issues are outside the control of civilians. The civilian authorities, even the American ones, appear not to be able to intervene."

Yet the pervasive feeling among Raqqa’s civil society activists is that the State Department abandoned them when trouble struck.

Tsurkov said, “The timing of the release of the activists, after [Al-Monitor] started asking questions, indicates they were not really ISIS. If their release posed any threat, they would have been kept behind bars no matter how many journalists came asking questions.”

If the exercise was intended to intimidate, as the activists contend, it achieved its purpose.

Summing up their sentiments, one said, “The work environment has become very anxiety-provoking. Today, any partnership can be destroyed by information from corrupt people, from people with their own agendas. People’s trust in these programs has started to falter. If our standing and the standing of our organizations aren’t reinstated, people will no longer accept partnerships with the Department of State.”

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