The man looked at me and answered with a slight smile;
“The Syrian Embassy in Sofia is very strong at the moment. They have the support of nationalists and the Russian embassy.”
The Syrian who has asked me to remain anonymous because his family is still in Syria, is one of several sources that confirms to me the information that Bulgaria is still a secure heaven for operations associated with the Syrian Embassy and their allies like Hezbollah. “Bulgaria, on the other hand, does not want to intervene and the embassy’s activity remains hidden”, said the man.
The Syrian Embassy currently has a strong diplomat – Nadra Sayaf. She have strong diplomatic experience in Czech Republic where the Syrian state remained well positioned thanks to allowance by the Czech administration. For example, Czech media are one of the few where Bashar Assad gave interviews. Now, she strengthens the relations with the Bulgarian administration. Among the initiatives related to the public image of Syria, are meetings with representatives of the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the participation of Christmas fairs.
Years-long PR and intelligence process
But today’s activity and improved public image has its own history and it has begun since the first days of the revolt in Syria and the efforts of the Syrian authorities to maintain support from the EU member states.
In the first 2 years after 2011, this pressure and psychological harassment against EU-based activists has begun to intensify. The campaign was against all those who publicly expressed their disagreement with the policies of the government in Syria. Reproaches, insults, accusations, fabrication of reality – these are just some of the tools that are being used to try to force someone without using actual force. Bulgaria was and still is one of the most important places where Syrian regime maintain its vision of the events. Thanks to the local Baath Party branch and th Syrian Students Association in Bulgaria, even students are monitored.
In 2013, I was summoned to the embassy by the then ambassador. My articles and activities were did not go unnoticed. The ambassador called me to talk. I was almost sure what would follow. Around the upcoming conversation there was tension, and one more fact: the new Syrian ambassador was known to come from the State Security circles, or Mukhabarat.
Until the beginning of the rebellion in Syria, Damascus sent to Sofia mostly diplomats with years of experience. Although Bulgaria was no longer so important to Syria as it was until 1990, Sofia was still one of the European capitals, with almost full operational staff at the embassy. Later, when some of the embassies were captured by the opposition or witnessed protests outside, and others were closed by the host state, Bulgaria would become the main reference point for the Assad administration and the embassy in Sofia began to serve requests from almost the whole of Europe. The incoming diplomats were already mostly on paper – their real purpose was to provide data on opposition activity in the Syrian community and the moods of Bulgarian society. This tactic, of course, was also applied in other countries where Syria still maintained its missions.
In September 2013 I talked with the ambassador Bashar Safiya at the Syrian Embassy in Sofia. The conversation – which I published in my book The Murder of a Revolution – published in Bulgarian last summer – was rather a monologue the dialogue in which the Syrian ambassador delivered me a lecture on the situation in Syria, which he thought I did not understand correctly. He did not allow anyone in the room, and since my Arabic is not the best, she started in English.
These talks have always begun in the same way: “I also supported the protests in the beginning, but …” and “I do not think Bashar Assad has no made mistakes, but …” and goes through “there is a plot against Syria and the lies were made very well” and to finish with “you are young and you can not understand the story – do not let them manipulate you”. Normally, if the listener is still stubborn and keeps his point of view, a threat is followed. In this case, it came almost at the beginning of the meeting. I remember almost every detail of that day. “You know your uncle is still in Syria.”
These words meant a very clear threat. It all went down to the fact that the embassy saw a problem with the publications I had in the Bulgarian editions and the theses that I was defending during the TV programs. Also, my activities in the activist circles did not suit the Syrian representation in Bulgaria. Then the ambassador offered a deal. “Post to your blog an interview with me,” he said, pulling out a folder from his desk, “and this folder will not go to Syria. Find out, I do not want to get there, so you have to do something to calm down there. “There” – he meant Syria and State Security in charge of anti-state affairs, including among the communities, living outside Syria.
After consulting with my colleagues and present the situation to other Syrian activists in Bulgaria, the interview was published not in my blog but on September 25, 2013 issue of “Standard” newspaper. For this interview I wrote in my Facebook to ask people if they want to send their questions to the ambassador. Later, he answered mostly to questions related to 2013 Ghouta chemical attack.
Syrian government points of view spread with help of local media and political parties
The positions expressed in this 2013 interview will be repeated two years later by the mass media in Bulgaria. Not because they received the replies from the Syrian embassy but because it had already begun the culmination of the media campaign with the support of Russian-backed circles in the country well described in the new book by Dimitar Bechev, Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe . More and more analysts and commentators appeared on the screen, who share the same points about the war in Syria with little nuances.
They showed the picture that Damascus wanted to see, namely that the country was waging a war of life and death with the terrorism; that Bashar Assad wants a political solution; that the opposition has raised arms against the army, rather than going to the negotiating table; that there are no refugees, but only illegal immigrants; that Islamists kill Christians.
These points were invented in Syria and assisted by Moscow and spreaded to countries where public opinion could be influenced. The Syrian Embassy in Sofia was no exception. As we shall see later, the arrival of the Islamic State has helped the Syrian conversation radically changed: from a focus on the regime and its actions against protesters to the war on terrorism.
Meanwhile, in 2012 and 2013, Bashar Assad had already declared openly that his country would become another Afghanistan, and the world must choose between the Jihadists and his government. Several months later, forces of organizations such as Jabhat al Nusra appeared, giving arguments in the mouths of the Syrian government and its supporters, including in Bulgaria. The fact that the Jihadists first dealt with rebels and activists as early as 2012 is already a tedious fact that has never found a place in the mass media.
In this atmosphere of war of ideas and spheres of influence, analysts, journalists, public figures played a major role. Some of them regularly visited the Syrian Embassy in Sofia, others had friendships in the government circles since they graduated in Damascus in the 1980s.
Either way, the mission of then ambassador to Sofia forged at an unclear alliance with the ultra Nationalist party Ataka, whose media – the Ataka newspaper and Alpha TV – spread the government’s support points. The party is backed by Russia and recently his leader Volen Siderov start his electoral campaign not from Sofia, but from Moscow. Often in the television, guests could be seen represented simply as a “Syrian living in Bulgaria” or “a member of the Syrian Association in Bulgaria” – an organization that almost immediately broke up in 2011 and de facto disappeared as an activity a little later, being present only as a name.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Bulgaria remain silent and even supportive for the Syrian regime activities in the country, even the intelligence agencies knows very well about it and it was confirmed to me by intelligence sources. Bulgarian members of the parliament from the Socialist Party even visited Damascus in 2014 provoking political and diplomatic scandal. Insiders told me then that one of the discussed topics was weapons deals with the government.
“I am afraid that the Bulgarian branch of the opposition is infiltrated by the embassy – like in other EU states” told me source from the Syrian political opposition based in Sofia. “This is process you can see everywhere and in the end of 2017 our activities were strongly monitored by the embassy.” Not only in EU. Recently, in Turkey two members of the opposition were murdered by the Syrian with contacts to the regime.
In 2016, reports have surfaced of Syrian security personnel being spotted in Europe – either recognized in refugee camps or seen in photographs posted online. The infiltration campaign and collection information about the opposition activities continue and possible to strengthen. From the political opposition the game is well known and dangerous.”We found that one of our members while he is publicly supporter of the revolution, in the same time he sent reports to the regime – with photos, locations, details.”