BEIRUT — As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his opening remarks at the Syria peace talks in Switzerland on Wednesday, he expressed outrage at new revelations of the brutal tactics perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Evidence of the execution of thousands of Syrians in Assad’s prisons, Kerry said, represented "an appalling assault, not only on human lives, but on human dignity and on every standard by which the international community tries to organize itself."
Kerry was referring to a report released this week based on the testimony of a defector within the Syrian military police, which seem to provide evidence of the systematic torture of thousands of detainees in Assad’s prisons. The defector, known only by the code name Caesar, provided roughly 55,000 images showing dead prisoners bearing the tell-tale signs of strangulation, brutal beatings, and starvation. The Assad regime’s enforcers had obsessively photographed the murdered men and kept track of them by reference numbers — in order, the report claimed, to prove to senior officials that the executions had been carried out.
Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian telecommunications engineer, hasn’t been able to look at these images, or the other pictures and videos streaming out of his native country over the past three years. They brought with them flashbacks from his own experience: In 2002 and 2003, he was Prisoner No. 2 in an underground cell at Syrian military intelligence’s Palestine Branch in Damascus, where he was beaten and whipped with two-inch thick electrical cables until he gave into his interrogators’ demands and falsely confessed to having been trained at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan.
The only mystery for Arar is why Americans are shocked at reports of torture in Syrian prisons. "What surprises me is the reaction of some people in the West, as if it’s news to them," he told Foreign Policy. "As far back as the early 1990s... the State Department reports on Syria have been very blunt — the fact is, Syria tortures people."
It’s a history that the U.S. government knows all too well — because, at times, it has exploited the Assad regime’s brutality for its own ends. Arar was sent to Assad’s prisons by the United States: In September 2002, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detained him during a layover at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. U.S. officials believed, partially on the basis of inaccurate information provided by Canada, that Arar was a member of al-Qaida. After his detention in New York, Arar was flown to Amman, Jordan, where he was driven across the border into Syria.
"Successive U.S. administrations may not agree with the politics of Bashar al-Assad, but when you have a common enemy called al-Qaida — that changes everything," Arar said. "[S]ince 9/11, Assad’s regime has been used for what the media now calls ‘torture by proxy.’ "
In Arar’s case, however, he had no actual ties to al-Qaida to confess. He was eventually released in October 2003, and both Syria and Canada admitted that they had no evidence tying him to terrorism. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology to Arar, and announced that the government would pay him a settlement of almost $10 million for his ordeal. Arar currently resides in Canada.
After the 9/11 attacks, the CIA’s use of extraordinary rendition — the practice of sending terrorism suspects to a third country for interrogation, including the use of methods that may be illegal in the United States — "expanded beyond recognition," journalist Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker. In addition to Syria’s prisons, detention facilities in Egypt, Morocco and Jordan were also key destinations for such subjects, who were flown around the world on private jets registered to dummy American corporations, according to Mayer.
Arar was far from the only detainee that the CIA threw in Assad’s prisons. In December 2001, the United States requested that Moroccan authorities arrest Mohammad Haydr Zammar, a German citizen suspected of aiding al-Qaida’s Hamburg cell, which was a key player in the 9/11 attacks. Once Zammar was apprehended, according to information obtained by British journalist Stephen Grey, he was interrogated by CIA officers in Morocco and then flown to Damascus, where — like Arar — he was held in the Palestine Branch.
The cooperation between the American and Syrian intelligence agencies was close enough that the CIA even offered German intelligence officers the opportunity to put specific questions to Zammar while he was in Assad’s prisons, according to Grey’s book, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition and Torture Program. Nothing is known of Zammar’s whereabouts or health since he sent a letter to his family in Germany in 2005.
Globalizing Torture, a report published by the Open Society Justice Initiative, provides the names of 136 detainees who were subjected to extraordinary rendition or secret detention. Of those detainees, at least eight were sent by the CIA to Assad’s jails. They include people who seemingly posed little or no danger — such as Noor al-Deen, a Syrian teenager captured with Abu Zubaydah, who the United States initially believed was a top al-Qaida operative but would later admit had never been a member of the terror group. They also include legitimately dangerous figures such as Abu Musab al-Suri, who was released by the Assad regime and subsequently became one of the world’s leading jihadist ideologues.
Despite the wide range of disagreements between the Bush administration and Assad, U.S.-Syrian intelligence cooperation in pursuit of al-Qaida represented a detente of sorts between the two governments. When ties soured in 2006, a parliamentarian close to Assad’s feared domestic enforcer, Assad Shawkat, told U.S. diplomats that Shawkat "still considered himself a friend of the United States." In February 2010, when U.S. officials were trying to persuade Assad to stem the flow of jihadists into Iraq, intelligence chief Gen. Ali Mamlouk told a U.S. delegation in Damascus: "President Assad wants cooperation, [and] we should take the lead on that cooperation."
The Syrian regime is once again trying to repair its relationship with the United States and Europe by invoking their shared intelligence goals: Before the Syria peace talks began, Assad said that their main objective should be "the fight against terrorism," while top Syrian diplomats have loudly trumpeted visits by Western intelligence officers to Damascus to discuss the fight against Islamist extremists.
But while rendering detainees to Syria is out of the question these days, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has not repudiated the Bush-era practice to the extent that civil rights activists would have liked. The Obama administration announced that it would continue rendition, but promised to ensure that detainees would not be tortured. According to a report published in The Nation, the CIA still funds a Somali-run prison in Mogadishu, where U.S. intelligence officers can interrogate suspected members of al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabab terrorist group captured in Somalia or rendered from Kenya.
The U.S. government has also never apologized to Arar for rendering him to Syria, or admitted that he was tortured in Assad’s jails. So it’s no surprise, perhaps, that Arar believes U.S. officials’ surprise at the latest revelation is more than a little hypocritical.
"Of course, the U.S. government will always ask for assurances for people not to be tortured," he said. "But they know that those assurances are not worth the ink they’re written with. They know that once a person gets there — they know what’s going to happen."
David Kenner is an associate editor specializing in the Middle East at Foreign Policy.