How one Syrian dissident found his voice on the Internet

McClatchy NewspapersJune 16, 2011 

GUVECCI, Turkey — For years, Mohamed Feezo tried to speak up about all the things Syrians were trained to ignore: cronyism and corruption, oppression of the Kurds, aid to the Iraqi insurgency and the preferential treatment given to Alawites, the minority sect of President Bashar Assad.

Time and again, Feezo's reckless remarks — at public cafes or in chats with colleagues — landed him in jail, and permanently in the crosshairs of the Syrian regime.

So when he first logged on to the Internet in 2006, the possibilities for a new, safer kind of dissent were thrilling, he recalled Thursday in this Turkish border village, where some of the 8,900 refugees from the Syrian uprising have sought shelter.

"I can't be silent when I see all this oppression and corruption, but I also couldn't speak in front of anyone," said Feezo, 32, who crossed into Turkey on Monday. "I took all this energy and anger and I put it on the Internet."

Now, with Assad's regime unleashing a brutal military assault to crush the nationwide rebellion, Feezo's Internet activism of the past five years has reached a crescendo. He spends up to 12 hours a day online, gathering updates from his far-flung network of like-minded activists and posting purportedly classified government documents like a one-man Syrian WikiLeaks.

The work of Feezo and dozens of other Internet-based activists provides the world's primary portal into the revolt that's challenging one of the Arab world's most repressive regimes. Their aggregation of raw footage of army attacks, the names of slain protesters and the testimonies of defecting soldiers go far beyond what traditional media can offer, especially since independent journalists are barred from Syria or report there under heavy restrictions.

Feezo wouldn't get into details about the origins of some of his most sensitive postings, such as a document that purports to show how the government allowed busloads of protesters to the Israeli border last month to distract from the current crisis. Israeli forces fired on the protesters, killing as many as 23.

"Within the Syrian security forces, there are still some honest people," he said with a coy smile, referring to his apparent moles in the government.

Feezo is a rail-thin, lightly bearded man with a plume of thick dark hair and a penchant for wearing a leather jacket even in the scorching summer temperatures. He's humble and serious in demeanor, but his eyes sparkle when he speaks of his wife and two young children, or when he recounts a joke about the Assad dynasty. (His favorite: Why did the bathhouse owner charge Bashar Assad 10 times the fee as his late father, former President Hafez Assad? Because the younger Assad turned out to be so much dirtier.)

Feezo was born in the town of Jisr al Shughour, near the Syrian-Turkish border, which is now said to be under full control of Assad's forces after a fierce assault that included helicopter gunships and a scorched-earth campaign that ruined the land of local farmers.

Thousands of Syrians fled the violence: at least 8,900 have crossed into Turkey and thousands more are still massed at the border, in limbo. Feezo asks the displaced Syrians for any video footage stored on their cell phones, and they've provided him with amateur clips of tanks rumbling down roads or protesters running for their lives as Assad's forces opened fire.

Feezo said he only crossed into Turkey to bring his wife and children to safety. He plans to return and continue gathering information from the ground, but he couldn't say how or when. Syrian forces are widening their incursion into the area, sending even more panicked families across the border before the tanks show up in their villages.

A popular uprising. A vengeful government. Families torn apart in the aftermath.

It's a narrative Feezo knows well. A failed revolt in the 1980s led to the imprisonment and exile of many of his relatives and family friends from Jisr al Shughour, he said. He was a child at the time.

After the earlier rebellion, his father moved the family to the diverse port city of Lattakia, where he saw firsthand the favoritism extended to members of the president's Alawite sect. In one of many examples, Feezo, a Sunni Muslim, said he graduated from university in 2000 and applied for state jobs along with 26 classmates of different backgrounds.

"They only chose 16, all Alawite," he said with a shrug.

Feezo found work in the control room of an iron factory and became more vocal about the corruption and discrimination he was witnessing. He'd debate friends in cafes and the authorities would haul him in for interrogation, he said.

Back then, the topic that got him in trouble was Syria's support for Iraqi insurgent groups that killed dozens of U.S. soldiers in the early years of the Iraq war. Feezo said it was yet another ploy for the Syrian regime to divert attention from the unfulfilled promises of reform at home.

During one "horrible" stint in detention, he said, he was kept in the basement of an office belonging to the feared state intelligence agency. He said the humiliation he endured is what makes him defiant today; he's one of very few Syrian refugees who consented to using their full names and photographs. Most are too terrified to disclose their identities out of fear for the safety of relatives still in Syria, or because they don't want to be exiled for good.

Feezo said he had similar hesitations about speaking up until he discovered the new frontier of the Internet. He began with online messaging and evolved to blogs, Facebook, Skype and Twitter, using assumed names at times to forge online alliances with opposition sympathizers throughout the country and abroad. Even the long arms of the Assad regime, he said, "can't really control six million users."

By the time the Arab Spring protests erupted this year, however, the Syrian government had caught on to its Internet dissidents. Like several other Arab regimes, the Syrian government censored sites, severed connections in several areas and hunted down opposition bloggers — practices it has employed during other sensitive times such as the 2006 war in neighboring Lebanon.

Activists complain that regime loyalists regularly hack anti-government pages on Facebook or pose as opposition sympathizers in forums where they act as agents-provocateurs, urging protesters to take up arms or inciting sectarian violence.

And the anonymous nature of online interaction, so vital for dissidents living under authoritarian rule, also leaves room for liars who could damage the credibility of the protest movement. Last week, a married American man admitted to masquerading as a popular Syrian lesbian blogger after journalists uncovered his elaborate hoax.

Online activism may not be the perfect model for newsgathering, Feezo conceded, but it's crucial for protesters to be reminded they're not alone. Before the first major protests in March, he said, he watched with growing excitement as a Facebook page calling for demonstrations attracted thousands upon thousands of supporters.

If even a fraction of them actually turned out, he reasoned, others would overcome their fears and join. That safety-in-numbers mentality helped the demonstrations spread throughout Syria, but the challenge now is whether the protesters — united online — will prove cohesive enough to wear down an entrenched regime that's shown no mercy to its enemies.

"In the end, the Internet is just about networking," Feezo said. "The real protesters are the ones in the street."

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