Syrian refugees targeted as Amman moves closer to Damascus

Analysis
7 min read
07 October, 2021
In-depth: Jordanian security services have carried out a months-long intimidation campaign against Syrian journalists and activists as Amman moves closer to Damascus.

In July, King Abdullah II sat down for an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, and told him that the 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan “are not going to go back anytime soon,” as “there’s nothing to go back to.”

While the king spoke to CNN, his security services were pulling Syrian refugees into their offices and asking questions of their own.

Their apparent crime: writing about Syria while living in Jordan.

The New Arab has learned of an intimidation campaign by the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) targeting Syria Direct – a media outlet staffed mostly by Syrian refugees that has covered Syria from Amman since 2013.

The campaign, which started in the spring of 2021, ultimately ended with the outlet’s forced closure in August apparently under orders of the GID.

"The New Arab has learned of an intimidation campaign by the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate targeting Syria Direct"

Syria Direct and its staff declined to comment on the story. A statement on their website states that they are “closing their operations in Jordan” and moving to Berlin.

It is unclear why the GID would have ordered Syria Direct to shut, and neither the GID nor the Jordanian Ministry of Interior responded to requests for comment.

However, an employee of a Western donor to Syria Direct speculated that its closure was likely related to Amman’s recent thaw in relations with Damascus.

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“Nothing has changed in their reporting. Nothing seemed to change except Amman’s rhetoric on Syria,” the donor employee said.

Jordan has moved to normalise relations with neighbouring Syria at a blistering speed over recent months.

During his July visit to Washington, Abdullah reportedly lobbied US President Joe Biden to bring Syria back into the regional fold.

Since then, Amman has taken a number of steps towards improving relations with Damascus. It has opened its border crossing, hosted the Syrian defence minister and held a number of ministerial meetings to facilitate the Egypt-Jordan-Syria-Lebanon electricity and gas deal.

On 5 October, Jordan’s security chief told reporters that relations between the two countries were moving forward, and that Amman was treating the situation in Syria as a “fait accompli.”

Syria Direct has provided critical coverage of both the regime and the opposition during its eight years of operation in Amman. The outlet has trained hundreds of Syrians and Jordanians, transforming budding media activists into professional journalists.

The outlet soon became one of the few Syrian-led publications focusing on the war in Syria. It gave Syrians a platform to shape the narrative about their country, where so often they are portrayed through the lens of political calculations or refugees adrift without agency, their story written by others.

Jordan refugees
Jordan hosts an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees. [Getty]

Stay within the red lines

To many Syrians, Jordan has been a space where they could safely express their support for the ongoing revolution in their home country, as long as they avoided certain Jordanian “red lines.”

In recent years, however, Jordan’s tolerance for Syrian activism has begun to narrow, according to previously Jordan-based Syrian activists who spoke with The New Arab.

A Syrian activist and journalist unrelated to Syria Direct, said that he had been subjected to an intense campaign of harassment and intimidation at the hands of the GID for almost a year between 2018 and 2019.

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“It began when I wrote an article on IS in Syria and I happened to mention the American military base in south-eastern Syria. The mukhabarat [GID] called me down to the security directorate in 8th circle in Amman [the GID headquarters] after that,” Sam*, a pseudonym, told The New Arab.

“They told me if I continued to write articles, that they would throw me into the Syrian desert, and let Daesh [IS] do what they want with me,” he said.

Soon the GID began to intensify their attention on Sam, calling him into their offices often in what seemed to be an attempt to intimidate him.

“They would call me at eight in the morning and tell me I had to come into their offices immediately. I would go, and they would verbally abuse me, then place me in a room to ‘wait for an officer.’ I would wait there for seven hours, alone, with no food, water or bathroom, when finally someone would come in and tell me to go home,” Sam said.

"They told me if I continued to write articles, that they would throw me into the Syrian desert, and let Daesh [IS] do what they want with me"

This routine was repeated for days in a row, and intelligence officers even began to visit his house in Amman - though he had never told them his address. 

He was eventually called into a high ranking security officials office in the GID headquarters, where an officer told him he would have to gather information for them, or else be deported to Syria.

“They started to ask me for information in Syria, and asked me to spy on my Syrian friends in Jordan and abroad,” Sam said. “I told them I couldn’t do that - that it was against my principles as a journalist.”

“I don’t want to hear ‘I can or I can’t, or I will try.’ We are treating you very well. If you cooperate with us, everything will be ok,” a Jordanian intelligence officer told Sam in written communications that The New Arab reviewed.

When one of his answers to a request for information was deemed unsatisfactory, the intelligence officer warned Sam that he and his family would be deported to al-Rukban camp, a displacement camp in a no-man’s land between Syria and Jordan, within 15 days.

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He began to comply with their demands and fed them information on Syrians, some of whom were his good friends.

“You start to blame yourself,” he explained. The stress and fear began to overwhelm Sam, who was only 21-years-old at the time.

“I reached the point where I was seriously considering suicide. Until today, I have trouble sleeping and issues with extreme anxiety and depression,” Sam said.

Eventually, Sam was able to get in contact with a European embassy and receive assistance. After almost a year since his initial contact with the GID, he was given a visa to apply for asylum in an EU country.

The security services’ treatment of Syrians in Jordan, he says, is getting worse. He claims he knows of at least three Syrians in Jordan who are currently being pressured to work as informants for the GID. The New Arab could not independently verify this allegation.

“This used to happen on an individual basis, to isolated cases, now it’s happening to everyone,” Sam said.

The message in Jordan, over the last few months, has been to “shut up or get out,” another Syrian activist based in the EU, told The New Arab.

King Abdullah II - GETTY
Jordan has moved to normalise relations with neighbouring Syria at a blistering speed over recent months. [Getty]

‘Where else can we go?’

Over half of Syria’s population has been displaced by its decade-long civil war. The bulk of these Syrians escaped to neighbouring countries, smuggling themselves over the border to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

Once out of the reach of the Syrian regime, many of these Syrians channelled their revolutionary ambitions into media activism, authoring articles and producing videos about the situation back home.

However, there were always limits on permitted speech in their new homes. With little more protection than a piece of paper with a blue UNHCR stamp on it, Syrians were wary of offending their host governments and ending up in prison - or worse, in Syria.

"With increasing international normalisation with the Assad regime, there are fears that the red lines which govern Syrians' speech in their host countries will only narrow"

The result is that Syrians in Turkey do not write about Turkey, and Syrians in Jordan do not write about Jordan.

With increasing international normalisation with the Assad regime, there are fears that the red lines which govern Syrians’ speech in their host countries will only narrow.

In Lebanon, six Syrian activists were arrested and slated for deportation in September, before a public outcry stayed their expulsion.

“Everything is moving in this direction - it’s not just in Jordan,” the donor employee said.

Earlier rhetoric from aid organisations and foreign governments to see Syrians through this crisis has proven to be a lie, he added.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou

Editor's Note: This article has been amended from an earlier version to avoid confusion over a source's affiliation.