Mercury Rising

Can opposition leaders contain protest violence in Ukraine—or is the country headed for “prolonged guerrilla warfare”?

KIEV — There's a joke being told in the wintry streets of Ukraine's capital, where anti-government protests have entered a tumultuous, increasingly violent third month.

"Do you know what's happening tomorrow?" one protester remarks casually.

"No, what?" another replies.

"Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, and Tyahnybok, who barely control the Euromaidan, are going for a meeting with President Viktor Yanukovych, who barely controls the country."

This black humor, which mocks the country's three main opposition figures -- Vitali Klitschko, Arseny Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok -- alongside the man they want to see toppled, is typical of a certain dark sensibility in Ukraine, a country that spent decades under Soviet oppression. But it also reveals growing frustration and anxiety in the Euromaidan movement, as street demonstrations spiral out of the control of their supposed leaders. Euromaidan began as a peaceful mass protest against Yanukovych's decision to eschew closer ties with Europe and instead cozy up to Russia, but in the last 10 days, it has descended into a frenzy of Molotov cocktails, fireworks, and rubber bullets, as the protests have escalated into street battles between protesters and the notorious Berkut ("golden eagle"), a special riot police unit know for its brutality.

"I am not for violence, but we need to something to be done," says a 23-year-old protester named Nazar, who traveled from the city of Lviv to participate in Kiev. He is standing outside a building besieged by protesters over the weekend. "This is Ukraine, and if the government uses force against us, then we must use it back. It is the only language they understand," he adds. In his hands, Nazar clasps a wooden baton and a shield, with the words anti-titushka emblazoned across it. "Titushka" is a Ukrainian slang term for government-hired thugs.

With no end clearly in sight, some fear Ukraine is now headed toward simmering civil conflict. "In the worst case scenario, we could be talking about prolonged guerrilla warfare, if a solution is not found," says Oleh Shamshur, the former Ukrainian ambassador to the United States. "We have reached a point of no return. Things cannot simply go back to how they were before."

The trigger of the recent unrest occurred on Jan. 16 -- locally now called "Black Thursday" -- when a package of repressive legislation, including restrictions on the media and protest activities, was passed in parliament with a quick show of hands. But if Yanukovych's intention was to deliver the final blow to the Euromaidan movement, he miscalculated: Viewing the new laws as a wake-up call, people rapidly took to the streets, and as they arrived, tension also escalated. Protesters chucked rocks across police lines, and police responded by spraying rubber bullets and tear gas indiscriminately into crowds. On Jan. 22 -- a national holiday known as "Unity Day" that commemorates Ukraine's post-Soviet independence -- news broke that at least three people had died in clashes.

In the face of Yanukovych's heavy-handed tactics, there is a sense among many protesters that their leaders simply aren't doing enough. The trio of Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, and Tyahnybok, whose politics are united by little more than a desire to overthrow the current government and a generally pro-European stance, have been hampered in their decision-making because they have not been able to nominate one person to take the reins of the protest movement. Their lengthy negotiations with Yanukovych have led to naught, and many protesters feel the leaders have offered only a tepid response to reports of police torturing detainees, as well as a spate of mysterious attacks against activists and journalists. "We have been here three months now," says Luka, a 26-year-old protester. "People have been killed, people have disappeared. This is not the time for talking. How much more can we take?"

It is now questionable whether the opposition leaders -- who have faced jeers, catcalls, and boos -- still have the credibility to keep a lid on the protesters' unrest. Certainly, the appetite for outright resistance, rather than negotiation, is spreading through the movement, which is increasingly being led by right-wing demonstrators. The most extreme of these come from a group known as the "Right Sector," a loosely organized confederation of nationalists and football hooligans. (The Right Sector's precise number isn't known, but on Vkontakte, a Russian social-networking site, it has garnered more than 140,000 supporters from across Ukraine.)

More and more fed-up protesters in the movement's mainstream are also beginning to organize themselves to use force against the police. Many walk around the Euromaidan's camp with makeshift weapons and shields. People wear protective headgear at all times. As the violence has escalated, women have been told not to cross the final barricade to the front line of the protests.

Outside his camp tent, a protester named Sergei, a war veteran, is training the less experienced around him in combat tactics. "Attack. Attack. Hit them with your shield, like this," he says as fellow protesters look on, crashing his makeshift armor into an imaginary foe.

Despite the announcement of a supposed truce with the government late Thursday evening by the opposition leaders, unrest continued throughout the weekend. On Friday, protesters pushed their barricades forward on Hrushevsky Street, one of Kiev's main arteries, and used a makeshift catapult to launch Molotov cocktails into police lines. On Saturday night, they stormed a downtown exhibition center called Ukrainian House, which police were using as their headquarters, in a spectacular display of firebombs. And in the last few days, the far-right group Spilna Sprava has occupied three government ministries in the capital.

Outside of Kiev, the protests are also growing. In western and central Ukraine, groups dominated by supporters of the nationalist Svoboda Party have taken over government buildings in a number of cities.

Tellingly, over the weekend, the rhetoric of the three opposition leaders seemed to be increasingly dictated by the uncompromising mood of the Euromaidan crowds -- perhaps motivated by a realization that the tide of the movement is shifting, and they have no choice but to follow or lose relevance. Crucially, they rejected a power-sharing deal offered by the president, saying it did not meet several of their demands. "[W]e're finishing what we started The people decide our leaders, not you," Yatsenyuk said in a tweet directed at Yanukovych. When Klitschko announced the rejection to protesters, he was met with cheers. And at a rally on Saturday night, Yatsenyuk and Tyahnybok gave their personal thanks to the "fans" of local football clubs for their support of the protests -- a seeming U-turn away from the leaders' previous condemnation of those supporting violent action.

Many on the streets now say that the situation could explode even more at any moment. "This is the quiet before the storm," says Dimitri Tereshchenko, a 36-year-old barricade guard. "This is a revolution, and it is spreading across the country. We can see that very clearly."



Blood Brothers

When Assad's horrific prisons were the CIA's dumping ground.

BEIRUT — As Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his opening remarks at the Syria peace talks in Switzerland on Wednesday, Jan. 22, he expressed outrage at new revelations of the brutal tactics perpetrated by President Bashar al-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 Qaeda. 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 Qaeda -- 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 Qaeda 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 former 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 Qaeda'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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda represented a détente 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, 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 Qaeda-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."