Brothers in Arms

Syrian dissidents are getting out of Damascus, but they can't escape their memories of torture.

CAIRO — "Tareq," a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, looks out a cafe window onto Tahrir Square, where an effigy of Hosni Mubarak limply hangs from a nearby lamppost. "They kept beating me on the head, and I was bleeding," he says, breathing shallowly. "I was screaming, 'For the sake of God!' But they would only respond, 'Where is your God now? Let him come and save you.' I was about to faint and could almost see light. I kept saying the shahada and telling God, 'This is for you and for the sake of freedom.'"

Tareq's story is one of many among the growing community of Syrian exiles in Cairo. As the number of refugees fleeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's 14-month crackdown has mounted, a collective memory has formed in the Egyptian capital: For many young Syrians, the horrors of war, once spoken of in hushed tones by their elders, have now come alive. From the relative safety of the spiritual heart of the Arab Spring, Syrian activists are organizing, protesting, and praying from afar for the demise of Assad's regime in Damascus.

But the comforts of Cairo -- it's safer for Syrian activists than Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey's border areas and cheaper than Istanbul -- are often not enough to drown out the physical and emotional trauma many refugees have endured. Tareq, who declined to give his real name for fear of retribution against his family in Syria, says he is plagued by memories of the electrical instruments used to torture him, soldiers' boots that crushed his face as he lay on the prison-cell floor where he was kept, handcuffs that restrained him as the guards threatened to rape his mother, and screams from detainees as soldiers used pocket lighters to burn the flesh from their groins.

Now, 400 miles away in Cairo, Tareq has attempted to rebuild his shattered life by remaining an energetic member of the activist community, organizing public events, plays, art activities, and short films to raise money and awareness for those back home.

Egypt, of course, is itself still far from a model of stability -- the upcoming presidential election promises to provoke a confrontation between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), newly resurgent Islamists, and embattled liberals -- and the dysfunction has left Syrian activists in a sort of political limbo. But Rami Jarrah, a well-known voice of the Syrian revolution who now heads a vast activist network from an office in Cairo, thinks Egypt's opportunities outweigh the inevitable disadvantages of a country in transition.

"In general, Syrian activists are free to move here," Jarrah says. "In Lebanon, you can't open an office like this. You have Hezbollah … It makes it impossible to really be active, to really surface and talk about the Syrian situation. In Egypt, it's far away, but close to what's happening. There's a lot of moral support."

Jarrah's own memories of torture in Syria, after being apprehended in March 2011 while covering one of the early anti-government protests in Damascus, motivate him to work into the early-morning hours in his Cairo office. He said he was imprisoned for three days in central Damascus, where he was denied food, water, and sleep, and would wake up covered in bleach after falling unconscious between beatings and suffocation at the hands of Assad's security forces.

Jarrah still tweets under his former alias, Alexander Page -- a daily reminder of the repression that initially drove him, his wife, and his child from Syria last October. Although he has made a new life for himself as an activist in Cairo, Alexander Page's biography still lists his location as "limbo."

"I spent the last seven years [in Syria] practically hating every second of it because of the fact that I felt Syrians didn't understand what freedom was," says Jarrah, who was born in Cyprus and raised in London, and who returned in 2004 to Syria, where he found work as an import-export consultant. "I [want] to spend another seven years in a democratic Syria."

Of course, Assad loyalists have found it just as easy to exploit Egypt's relatively open political space as opponents of the Syrian regime have. The Syrian mukhabarat, or secret police, regularly intimidate Syrians involved in anti-Assad activity in Cairo, activists say. After fleeing to Cairo, Jarrah says, he would receive ominous phone calls from an unknown number every day at 6 a.m. A voice on the line would recite the Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran, which is often said after someone dies.

But now, Jarrah says, the work of Syrian intelligence officers in Egypt is waning -- activists have not been harassed with the frequency that they were in the past. He attributes this to the raging conflict inside the country, which may be preoccupying the regime's attention. Nevertheless, Jarrah explains, Syrian intelligence officers still want activists to be aware of their presence in Cairo.

What's more, he thinks Syrians in Cairo who appear to be working for the regime may not necessarily be pro-Assad at all. In a bitter twist of irony, he says, some Syrian asylum-seekers who reach Cairo still find themselves prisoners of Assad's tyranny and are forced to feed information to Syrian intelligence to free family members and friends still in detention back home.

But for some Syrians, solidarity with Egyptian activists partly makes up for Cairo's pitfalls. "We see [Syrians] as people looking for their freedom," says Muhammad Ramadan, a freelance filmmaker and Egyptian revolutionary. "We support them and welcome their presence and protests in Cairo."

Ramadan could be found in Tahrir Square last year, filming the unfolding Egyptian revolution. Now he documents anti-Assad protests in Cairo -- his way of boosting a cause that many Egyptian and Syrian activists believe has yet to generate any significant response from the international community. "I support Syria because I'm Egyptian," he says. "It's important to have solid revolutionary governments around us [to lead] our Arab world forward."

Support from the Egyptian government, however, is more ambiguous. "I feel safe [in Egypt], but I don't feel safe in the office," Jarrah says. Egypt's laws regarding foreign funding make it almost impossible for him to officially register his organization, the Activists News Association, which supports citizen journalism and coordinates Syrian activism. "It's only a matter of time before they shut us down," he predicts. "But by that time, we'll be credible enough to cause public reaction."

Even for Syrians not as prominent as Jarrah, Egypt's safety only stretches so far. "Bassam," a former Syrian student in Cairo, was part of the group that stormed the Syrian Embassy in Cairo in January. Inside the building, he says, the demonstrators found reports listing the names of Syrians who have spoken out against the Assad regime in Egypt. His name was among them. The revelation did not deter Bassam. Since our conversation, he has used what would have been his tuition money to return to Syria to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), according to his friends in Cairo. (Although Syrian government officials in Cairo connected his name to anti-Assad activity, his identity has been withheld because they do not know of his plans to fight with the FSA.)

According to Bassam, pro-regime Syrian students joined the January protests to gather the faces and names of demonstrators to hand over to Syrian Embassy officials. "They blackmail us," Bassam explains. "If you want your name off the list, you have to join pro-regime forces. We're not allowed to go back to our homes [in Syria]." He says the Egyptian government "knows this is going on -- they give [the Syrian intelligence] the freedom."

Some lower-level Egyptian officials, however, have found ways to tip the scales in favor of the anti-Assad protesters. In April 2011, following a particularly bloody crackdown by the Assad regime, activists organized a demonstration outside the Syrian Embassy in Cairo. As Syrians mourned outside, embassy officials blasted pro-regime music from within. According to Bassam, an Egyptian police officer demanded that the officials shut off the music, and when they didn't comply, he cut off their electricity. "The policeman sympathized with us," Bassam says.

The officer's action prompted a new chant from the crowd: "Egypt and Syria, hand in hand" -- a modification of the old Egyptian revolutionary chant that the people and the army were "one hand."

Still, Cairo's comforts cannot distract Syrian refugees from the horrors that their compatriots are suffering back in Syria. Halfway through our interview, Bassam was informed by text message of a recent attack near his home, in the southern city of Deraa. Putting his phone on speaker, he tried calling his sister, the dial tone droning on until it cut out completely. "There is no connection," he said, staring at the screen.

Bassam's stay in Cairo was only temporary. For him -- like so many Syrians seeking refuge -- Cairo is a city of waiting and counting as the death toll ticks higher several hundred miles away. Bassam's only way back into his home country was to illegally cross Syria's border with Jordan. He wasn't naive about the risks. Several months ago, he attempted the journey from Turkey, with a group of Syrians who hoped to join the FSA. But upon stepping on Syrian soil, the group was ambushed by Syrian soldiers, and only half survived, he says. His most recent trip, however, has been more successful.

Not all Syrian activists in Egypt make their mark on Cairo's streets. One activist, a Syrian woman known to most only as "Damascus Rebel," was living in Cairo before the Arab Spring and now is tirelessly committed to informing the world about the situation in Syria. She tweets as @Mou2amara -- it means "conspiracy" in Arabic -- a name she chose during the Egyptian revolution, when officials claimed protesters were being bribed with $10 and a meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Everyone was talking about the external conspiracies against Egypt," she told me. "Little did I know it was going to be the excuse for every dictator during the revolutions."

Damascus Rebel works with a large network of activists -- around 100 directly and hundreds more through other organizations. Some have recently arrived in Cairo, and others remain undercover in Syria. Every day she circulates information and videos through her blog and Twitter feed, working to inform other activists and journalists about events in Syria.

For Damascus Rebel, Egypt is purely an electronic base. She rarely goes to protests, for fear of being outed by Syrian mukhabarat. Her identity remains a mystery to most, and even with Egypt's fairly liberal tolerance for Syrian activism, she fears her cover will be compromised, endangering her family both inside and outside Syria. "I don't trust meeting anyone," she admits. Most of her interactions with other activists are over Skype and Twitter, and though they often know each other's daily schedules and intimate details about their personal lives, real names are rarely used.

Damascus Rebel found her activist voice during the initial rumblings of the Egyptian revolution. But now the uncertainties of post-revolution Egypt create their own set of barriers for Syrian activists. "If the Egyptian government would take a solid stand, then Syrians would know how to organize properly," she says. "If there was a government in place, then [we] could work with NGOs. If paperwork was being done, [we] could apply for a license to do something."

Some days, she feels helpless. Working from afar, there is only so much an activist can do. "We are sick and tired of sending out videos of mangled children. At what point are we going to be seen as human beings?" she asks. "We [hear] people screaming over Skype."

For all Egypt's flaws, it is the much-needed sense of solidarity Syrians find in the country that brings them back to Cairo.

"When I stand in Tahrir Square, I am proud," Tareq says. "I want to thank the Egyptian people for supporting Syrians." He recalls a phrase he saw the other day, written on a wall in Tahrir: "Down with the SCAF and down with Bashar al-Assad." They were written "next to each other in the same line," he says. "They come together."

John Moore/Getty Images


The Asian Arms Race That Wasn't

India and Pakistan are firing off missiles left and right. So why aren't the Chinese nervous?

Are we in the middle of a missile race in Asia? On April 25, Pakistan conducted the first test of its Shaheen 1-A intermediate-range ballistic missile. The Pakistan military said that the missile, which is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead against targets in India, successfully hit its intended location in the Indian Ocean.

If the thought of the world's most unstable nuclear power testing such weapons doesn't keep you up at night, consider this: Pakistan isn't the only nation bombarding the Indian Ocean with ballistic missiles in recent days -- an Indian missile test of its 5,000-km Agni V likely spurred the trial of the Shaheen 1-A. On a small island off India's eastern coast late last month, a three-stage missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead blasted off and climbed more than 370 miles into the atmosphere before re-entering and splashing down into the water. Mainstream reporting on India's successful test of the Agni V missile has suggested that the launch gave it "nuclear parity" with China -- a claim echoed by seasoned South Asia hand Edward Luce last Sunday.

However, there is little reason to overreact to this series of missile tests. India's test reflects one step forward in a long process of gradually achieving a retaliatory capability against its regional adversaries, especially China. Nothing more, and nothing less. Moreover, the test will not fuel an arms race with either China or Pakistan -- despite Islamabad's test of its own intermediate-range ballistic missile in response to the Indian test.

It is important to understand precisely where India's ballistic missile development program stands. With a range of 5,000 kilometers, the Agni V is technically an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which is defined as missiles with a range of at least 5,500 kilometers. Yes, this is an arbitrary cutoff. But it is useful for understanding the capabilities that India's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the agency responsible for India's ballistic missiles, has mastered -- and those it has not. India does not have, and is at least several years away from, a true ICBM or sea-based capability.

The importance of this development should not be minimized: When the Agni V is eventually inducted into India's Strategic Force Command, it will give it the ability to strike anywhere in China, including the capital Beijing. It extends the reach of India's Agni family of land-based strategic ballistic missiles, which range from 700 km (Agni I) to now 5,000 km (Agni V). Chinese missiles, on the other hand, can already strike anywhere on the Indian subcontinent. The Agni V is designed to support India's ability to assure nuclear retaliation against China in the event nuclear weapons are used against it.

The Indian test also represents a substantial achievement for India's DRDO, demonstrating its mastery of maintaining structural integrity under significant stresses, successful stage separation, and terminal warhead guidance. But beyond these technical advances, the significance of the test should not be over-hyped. It was just a test, and only the first one for the Agni V. DRDO remains several tests, and several years, away from being able to reliably produce and operationalize the Agni V.

The idea that India can -- or even intends to -- achieve nuclear parity with China with a single test is misguided. Nuclear posture unfolds over years and decades, and India is just now creeping toward having an assured retaliation capability against China. Even when the Agni V is inducted into India's military, Beijing will still enjoy clear advantages in both warheads and delivery systems, and it will retain them for the foreseeable future. For starters, China has at least twice as many nuclear warheads as India, many of which contain much higher yields than their Indian counterparts. With several decades of experience developing nuclear systems, China's missiles are also probably more reliable than India's. With the ongoing development of the Type-094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine that will carry the Julang-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, China also has a significant head start on sea-based capabilities.

Don't expect this test to spark an arms race in the region, either. India has been developing the Agni V since at least 2007, so both China and Pakistan have likely already factored its eventual deployment into their own nuclear planning. One central point missed by many analysts is that China and India have remarkably similar nuclear strategies --both are keyed to assured retaliation, or guaranteeing a secure second-strike capability. This means that once both sides have developed survivable second-strike forces capable of reaching an adversary's key strategic targets, there is little need for additional forces.

Most importantly, neither India nor China have nuclear strategies that target each other's nuclear forces. This would make nuclear stability critically dependent on the numerical balance of forces, as was the case during periods of the Cold War. Instead, with assured retaliation strategies, nuclear stability can be established much more easily, once both states acquire secure second-strike capabilities. India is only now reaching the point of having an assured retaliation capability against China. Given China's superior capabilities, the eventual deployment of the Agni V will thus not weaken China's deterrent, even as it strengthens India's. China is unlikely to deploy more weapons in response, because its ability to survive a first strike by India remains robust. As a result -- although an editorial in the always acerbic Global Times stated that India "should not overestimate its strength" -- China's official reaction was quite muted.

Pakistan is also unlikely to alter its own approach to nuclear weapons following the deployment of the Agni V. First, it is unclear how the test alters the nuclear balance between the two rivals: India's existing arsenal can already reach Pakistan's strategic targets. Second, Pakistan primarily aims to use its nuclear forces to deter an Indian conventional attack, abjuring a "no first use" pledge in order to credibly threaten nuclear use in such a contingency. Thus, its nuclear requirements are driven largely by India's growing conventional capabilities - not the range of its nuclear capabilities. Finally, even Pakistan's test of the Shaheen 1A missile is part of its longstanding quest to achieve a secure second-strike capability against Indian targets, and no evidence exists that Pakistan will produce or deploy such missiles in numbers that would trigger an arms race. Moreover, as Pakistan has typically timed the test of its missiles with those of India's, its test was largely predictable. And neither of the launches would have caught the other state by surprise, as both have adhered to an agreement to notify each other ahead of impending ballistic missile tests.

One development could, however, upset the strategic balance in South Asia. Shortly after the test, comments from the head of the DRDO suggested that India might also be developing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) for several Agni variants. This capability could enable India to deliver multiple nuclear warheads against an adversary's targets -- or its nuclear forces -- with a single ballistic missile launch. MIRVs, coupled with a potential missile defense system in development, could have far-reaching implications for the survivability of China and Pakistan's nuclear forces. Nevertheless, these comments were likely unauthorized and certainly do not reflect the policy of the Indian government or its future force posture. They were most likely made to enhance the organizational prestige of the DRDO, which has long sought to claim that it can indigenously develop world-class systems. This is not the first time that DRDO has made comments with strategic implications that do not reflect official policy.

Finally, in an alarmist article in the New York Times, Graeme Herd at the Geneva Center for Security Policy claims that the timing of the Agni V test would heighten suspicions that it was aimed at China, because it occurred as Beijing is engulfed in the political scandal surrounding deposed party boss Bo Xilai. Most missile tests, however, do not work this way. The Agni V test was planned for years, and it was most likely scheduled for when DRDO was simply ready to test the missile -- and of course, when the weather was clear. Recall that the United States tested missiles according to a standard operating procedure as well -- even once conducting a pre-planned test in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis simply because it was already scheduled.

A sober look at the Agni V test suggests that it was a significant technical step forward in India's longstanding quest for an assured second-strike capability toward its regional adversaries. But it was not much more than that. Analysts expecting an arms race in Asia will likely be disappointed.