The government of Syria is a regime driven by paranoia, its worldview tinged by offbeat conspiracy theories and fantasies of foreign subversion. A fractious history of tribal politics and successive military coups has produced a tight grip on public life, with talk of “spies” and “files” on every citizen. Even in the popular protests that have unfolded in recent weeks, Syria sees only the work of its enemies.
Nowhere is that view more apparent than in the case of Mohamed Radwan.
Radwan, a 32-year-old Egyptian-American dual citizen, was taking pictures of an anti-government protest outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus — one of the holiest shrines in Islam — when he was swept up by security officials and whisked to an undisclosed location. He was held in solitary confinement, unsure of his whereabouts or the charges against him, for more than a week.
“He was interrogated by a lot of people,” Radwan’s cousin, Tarek Shalaby, said in an interview from Cairo. “He was always being interrogated.”
Radwan was accused of spying, traveling to Israel — a crime in Syria — and liaising with a Colombian journalist, who had asked Radwan for help covering the protests. Radwan appeared on Syrian state television in what appeared to be a forced confession, admitting that he had “visited Israel in secret” and that he had “received money from abroad in exchange for sending photos and videos about Syria.”
Egyptian and American officials, meanwhile, lobbied intensively for his release. Radwan’s father, Abobakr Radwan, flew to Damascus to meet with diplomats there. He was intercepted several times by Syrian security officials, who drove him to an unmarked building with no signs and questioned him for hours about his son. “The officials were poker-face people,” Abobakr Radwan said. “They showed no emotions.”
The only information they offered, he said, were taunting questions about his son’s alleged crimes. “How come a decent person like you have a son that is doing all of this?” the officials asked. They could not be reasoned with, Abobakr said.
“I tried to convince them,” he recalled. “If he really meant harm to their country, would he be taking pictures with a mediocre mobile phone camera and standing in the middle of the street, announcing to everyone that he was taking pictures? I mean, that would be really stupid.”
Beyond the walls of the prison where Mohamed Radwan was being held, meanwhile, the Syrian regime was executing a bloody crackdown on dissidents and protesters across the country. Security officials, some dressed in plain clothes, sprayed bullets indiscriminately at crowds, targeted funeral processions and arrested demonstrators en masse. Just this week, eight more were killed in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, pushing the death toll past 100, according to Human Rights Watch.
Satisfied that its crackdown was working, and under increasing pressure from Egyptian and American officials, the regime released Radwan last week, along with several other foreign nationals caught up in the arrests. Shalaby said the order came directly from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, though that could not be independently confirmed.
Nadim Houry, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in an interview from Lebanon that Radwan’s arrest was evidence of the Syrian regime’s delusions, as well as its desperation in the face of unrest.
“The case of Mohamed Radwan, I think, is the best case to show that this is a paranoid regime that is just trying to concoct some sort of crazy conspiracy theory,” Houry said. “The regime wanted Exhibit A for their arguments about foreign conspiracy. But they have yet to prove what foreign conspiracy they’re talking about.”
Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, whose leaders were equally oppressive but somewhat more pragmatic, the protests in Syria seem unlikely to dislodge the Assad regime. The government’s apparent willingness to do anything to quash the uprising, including mass arrests and indiscriminate killings, may well deter protesters from taking to the streets.
“Now the issue is whether the protesters are willing to go on protesting, knowing that protesting is a deadly business in Syria,” Houry said. He added that a key date to watch would be Friday, to see if protesters pour into the streets after Friday prayers, as they have done for the past several weeks.
In the meantime, a tense calm has taken hold in Damascus, and in the dusty agricultural towns that have seen the most intense clashes. Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm, said oppressive measures like the arrest of Radwan had succeeded in thwarting the protests. “I think the intimidation tactics are working,” she said.
Syria’s opposition parties, Bhalla added, have been hobbled by restrictions on political activity. They also fear another atrocity akin to the 1982 “Hama Massacre,” in which the government of Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez Al-Assad, razed the town of Hama and killed tens of thousands of people to suppress an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“One thing we were watching for, to see if this would trigger a more serious threat to the regime, is whether the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was going to throw its full weight behind the demonstrations,” Bhalla said. “I don’t think we saw that.”
She added that limited unrest would likely continue, especially in poorer agricultural villages such as Daraa in southwest Syria, but that meaningful political reform was unlikely given the regime’s public displays of force and willingness to resort to even more brutal measures.
“I don’t really expect much change there, in terms of the regime resorting to more forceful crackdowns,” Bhalla said, adding: “The Syrians are no stranger to this.”