A secret network of some 500 Syrian activists is attempting to unite an opposition scattered around the world. Despite some challenges, the group has become a powerful tool to coordinate protests in Syria.
A fresh pack of Syrian baklava lies next to Sham's laptop as she scrolls through the Facebook group that connects her in the US to about 500 other Syrian activists. All of them are members of a secret network Sham started soon after the Arab Spring blossomed in Syria a year ago.
"In the beginning, it was mostly for moral support," said Sham, a Syrian woman living in New York City. She didn't give her real name because she feared reprisals against her family in Syria.
But the group quickly expanded beyond close, trusted friends and became an important tool to organize protests in Syria under the radar of the secret police.
Helping from far away
About 40 percent of the group is based abroad, which presented a dilemma for many. They were connecting activists inside Syria and coordinating protests - but they were never the ones who took to the streets and risked getting arrested.
"I always feel guilty for not being there, for not paying my dues and sharing the suffering," said Karam Nachar, a 29-year-old Ph.D. student at Princeton University and a leading figure in the group.
In New York, activists Sham and Karam Nachar both protested against Russia's veto of a UN resolution on Syria
Many of Karam Nachar's and Sham's friends back home have been arrested; some have been tortured and some disappeared for several months. But although they're frustrated they cannot join their friends on the frontline, they've found a way to be useful as expat activists: By establishing safe communication channels for those inside Syria.
"In the beginning, I was feeling guilty, but then I realized I was actually helping the activists inside Syria by providing a more secure environment. I do believe that without the connection between outside and inside, these things would not work," Sham said.
A hard lesson taught Karam Nachar the importance of tight security.
Karam Nachar is a native of Aleppo, Syria's second-biggest city, which has been relatively quiet compared to hotspot cities like Homs. Eager to see his own city join the revolution, he and two other Aleppo natives based abroad teamed up and managed to recruit about 50 revolutionary youths.
Initially, it was a success. A series of demonstrations were held - flash mob-style protests Karam describes as "fleeting demonstrations" where a group shouts slogans for five to ten minutes before taking flight.
"It's basically a rehearsal to get people to be brave. You stay ten minutes, you do these shouts and then you run. Because they are going to come after you, and we need the manpower for later demonstrations," Nachar said.
What happened after a series of successful demonstrations is still not clear to the group, but Nachar has two different theories. Either someone in the group was too enthusiastic and telling too many of their friends about their actions, or the group had been infiltrated.
The outcome, however, was clear: One of the newly recruited revolutionaries was snatched by state security. Succumbing to torture, he gave up the real names of some of his co-conspirators.
"During their imprisonment, we were all extremely distressed, and we all felt extremely guilty, especially the ones living abroad. We were kind of responsible for their predicament, because we were the ones behind the whole project," Nachar said.
Two months would pass before they were released. Nachar now knows his name is on a list, and that he will no longer be able to set foot in Syria as long as President Bashar Assad is in charge.
Recruiting new members
To protect the activists inside Syria, five members of the inner circle form a security committee. These gatekeepers are in charge of background checks and interviewing prospects to avoid being infiltrated by double agents. Prospective members aren't granted access to the group unless at least three current members can vouch for them.
Political groups in the Middle East have used this technique in the past, says Ervand Abrahamian, professor of Middle Eastern History at Baruch College in New York.
Activists use fake names on Facebook as this makes it harder to link them to the secret group if they are arrested
"It's not like open society where you can just open up shop and recruit. It's very carefully done. In the old communist parties in the Middle East, you would basically need three people who would recommend you, and then you would be vetted to see if you were suitable for membership," Abrahamian said.
On Facebook, despite the group being secret, members on Syrian soil use fake names. This makes it harder to link activists to the secret group if they are arrested and forced to give up Facebook login details - a scenario several members have been through. Expat members, out of state security's reach, use their real names in order to send a stronger message, Nachar said.
Exactly what message to send is one of many discussions that take place in the group's debate forum. Four decades under the rule of the Assad family has made politics taboo in Syria. And though the Arab Spring may have broken the taboo, many have yet to learn the art of political debate, Sham said.
"We have not talked about politics for a long time. This means we are not tolerant to someone else's opinion," Sham said.
They may trust each other with their lives, but strong political divides persist. There's Islamic versus secularist, for or against foreign intervention and sectarian divides, just to name a few. For Sham, though, respecting each other's differences is key to giving the revolution they're dreaming of a sustainable outcome.
Author: Rasmus Raun Westh
Editor: Sarah Steffen