Syrians in Jordan fear hunt from Assad agents

Published August 03, 2012

| Associated Press

Sultan, a 42-year-old Syrian anti-regime activist, knew he was being hunted, even in this northern Jordanian city where he had taken refuge. The attack came on a crowded street: Two men grabbed him and dragged him into a waiting car, shouting, "It's him!"

In the chaos, Sultan says, he recognized the car's driver: a Syrian intelligence officer from the Damascus prison where for three months this year Sultan was jailed and tortured for participating in protests against President Bashar Assad.

"We can finish him in seconds," one of the men shouted, Sultan told The Associated Press, speaking on condition that his full name not be used to avoid further reprisals.

In the car, they stabbed him with a knife, slashing his neck and head. But the car got stuck in traffic. When Sultan screamed and pounded on the windows, passers-by and police intervened and rescued him, arresting the four Syrian men in the car.

The attack, in early July, was the latest in a string of similar incidents in recent months that have raised fears among Syrian refugees that Assad's regime is extending its crackdown across the border into neighboring Jordan. Refugees and Jordanian officials believe Syrian regime agents are operating in the kingdom on a campaign to hunt down opponent and intimidate those who have fled.

That has Jordanian officials worried over a potentially more extensive campaign of assassinations or bombings — targeting Jordanians as well as Syrians — as Damascus lashes out against its neighbor in moves that could drag this U.S.-allied kingdom into Syria's civil war. Jordan already faces its more powerful neighbor's growing anger because it is hosting more than 140,000 refugees who fled the 17-month-old conflict, as well as members of the rebel Free Syrian Army fighting Assad's military.

Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi said the kingdom is deeply concerned over Syrian "sleeper cells."

"There could be killings, or explosions, or assassinations of Syrians and Jordanian personalities," he said. "There could also be serious border confrontations or incursions."

There has already been one attempted bombing of a Jordanian.

Security officials say they arrested a man in June trying to plant a bomb under the car of Jordanian businessman Nidal Bashabsheh, who has been active in helping Syrian refugees. Bashabsheh was visiting an apartment complex in northern Jordan where he is housing refugees when the man was seen putting the bomb under his car, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the press.

There is precedent for more. In 1982, when Syria's regime waged a bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria massed troops on Jordan's border, accusing the kingdom of supporting the Islamists. No attack took place, but there was a wave of assassinations of Syrian Brotherhood activists who took refuge in Jordan. In 1970, the Syrian military carried out a short invasion of northern Jordan to protect Palestinians during a Jordanian crackdown on Palestinian factions.

"Assad is seething with anger at Jordan. It's now like a jigsaw puzzle with all scenarios possible," said Adnan Hamdan, 50, a cleric who worked in Syria's Religious Affairs Ministry until he defected to Jordan last Februrary.

Hamdan, now in Irbid, said he has received dozens of emails, text messages, and telephone calls from people with Syrian accents, warning "me that I will be killed because I have been outspoken in the media, exposing Assad's atrocities against the people."

Traditionally, Jordan's relations with Syria have been strained because of the kingdom's strong alliance with the United States and cordial ties with Syria's arch Israeli enemy under a 1994 peace treaty.

Syria's crisis has only worsened ties. Last year, Jordan's King Abdullah II suggested Assad must step down over the bloody crackdown. Last week, Jordan inaugurated its first refugee camp for the Syrians, an embarrassment for Damascus.

Recent shootings by Syrian troops on refugees at the border have raised Jordanian worries of an incursion, prompting Amman to deploy more troops near the frontier and put air defenses on alert. King Abdullah inspected the frontier and visited with his troops late Wednesday.

In the past few months, Syria has been pressing for the extradition of Syrian army and police defectors, but Jordan declined, according to a security official, who declined to be identified, saying he was not allowed to comment on sensitive state security matters.

Recently, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh admitted that Jordan has toughened its entry regulations and screening for Syrians to prevent pro-Assad loyalists from operating among refugees.

But the attack on Sultan and others like it suggest regime agents are present.

Sultan, who arrived in Jordan in mid-July and works with the FSA, said that before the attack, neighbors in Irbid told him men were asking for him, claiming to have a message from his hometown of Daraa. Terrified, Sultan refused to leave his house for days.

"All I thought of is to find another place to hide," he told The Associated Press. Finally, "I went out for a breath of fresh air and to see the sun," he said. "I thought I'd try my luck, maybe they gave up looking for me."

That was when the attack came. A Jordanian security official confirmed the July 4 attack on Sultan and said the four men arrested from the car were Syrians. The official would not say more about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

A former Syrian army captain from Daraa who defected and fled to Jordan said he was attacked in the capital, Amman. He arrived in Jordan on May 8 and quickly heard from fellow Syrians that a group of Syrians was asking about him.

Three days later, three Syrian men and a woman approached him on an Amman street and said they had a letter for a Syrian in the neighborhood. They seemed unsure if he was the man they were looking for, since he had grown out his beard and dyed his hair since defecting, said the 34-year-old former captain. When he replied in a Syrian accent, they realized he was their man, he said.

They put two guns to his head, dragged him into a car and drove to an empty lot where they beat him with clubs, he said.

"They said the next time, they'd come back to kill me if I don't head back to Syria within a week," he said. "They sped off and left me bleeding from the nose, mouth and head all night."

The captain, his head still creased with the scars, is now in hiding in a city in Jordan's eastern desert. He spoke on condition his name and exact location not be revealed for fear of being tracked down.

In a more mysterious incident, refugees living at the apartment complex run by the Jordanian businessman Bashabsheh reported two attempts to poison the complex's water supply.

Three residents and two members of the Free Syrian Army said that on March 17, a pair of Syrians were caught dumping bags of rat poison into the water tanks on the building's roof. Then in June, they said, Syrians gave a resident money to dump pills into the tanks. The resident instead turned the money and the pills over to FSA members in the building, who said the pills were found to be cyanide-based. The FSA members said they believed Syrian intelligence was behind the attempts, but there was no independent confirmation of the incidents.

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