Born in 1961 in the town of Rastan between Homs and Hama, General Ahmed Tlass graduated from the Police Academy with a doctorate in Political Science. After more than 20 years at the head of the police’s financial division in the governorate of Hama, he was in 2008 appointed Director of the Office of Contracts at the Ministry of the Interior in Damascus. He still held this position when he decided, on the 27th of July 2012, to distance himself from a power whose actions he could no longer accept. He is now a refugee in Amman, Jordan, where he testified to François Burgat, researcher at the CNRS at the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World, and Principal Investigator for the European Council (ERC)-funded WAFAW program (When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World).

Coming from a senior police chief in office at the beginning of the events in Syria, the testimony of General Ahmed Tlass is of particular significance. It shows how, from the beginning of the popular uprising, members of a cell under the authority of the Head of State himself deliberately sought to provoke an escalation of violence. Outside of the usual hierarchy, they ordered to shoot to kill. They organised spectacular attacks to warn off minorities and those thinking of rallying together in protest. They also manipulated information to deter external powers from supporting the revolutionaries.

My name is General Ahmed Tlass. I come from Rastan, a small town on the banks of the Orontes, where I lived for a long time and where I saw these events unfold. I was witness in Hama to the burgeoning protest movement. I was in charge of the Office of Contracts at the Ministry of the Interior. Before defecting, I was of course kept informed of events in different cities on a daily basis, especially in Homs which was close to my hometown.

In my position at the Ministry of the Interior I had more than twenty men under my command. It was through this office that all the contracts relative to the various departments passed. I dealt therefore directly with more than half of the members of government. I studied the contracts, I signed them off, and then I followed through. I worked primarily with the Russians, Iranians and Koreans. I had contacts in French and German companies but without our business ever concluding. I will not expand here, it is not the place, on the countless types of corruption which my men and myself were exposed to. It came from individuals inside and outside of Syria, sometimes working at the Presidential Palace, and could take many forms: money, mobile phones and even cars …

I am speaking now as a citizen. I witnessed the events that I will speak about both as a simple Syrian and as an officer. I will relay what I saw, what I observed in the course of my duties, the facts that I will now expound.

All people wanted was the implementation of genuine reforms”

What is known as “the explosion of March 15, 2011,” actually began several years ago in Syria. In the months preceding the revolution, writings – leaflets and graffiti – had emerged, either distributed or drawn on walls, around Damascus and on the walls at the Ministry of the Interior. There was no mention of regime change. All people wanted was the implementation of genuine reforms and they demanded the rights and freedoms that they felt deprived of. For a long time in our country, young people and students, between 18 and 30 years old, had suffered from unemployment. They were unable to establish a family life. We had also for a long time, a large population of prisoners. They were not criminals but opponents. Their families did not understand why they had been arrested and they demanded to be released.

Some members of the intelligence services thought that it would be better to let these demands find expression to ease the tension. They were not in fact unfamiliar with this multiplication of leaflets and posters. Others felt on the contrary, that it was preferable to put an end to a movement that could expand and radicalize as soon as possible. What happened next was that young people were arrested. Not individuals caught red-handed, but activists who were denounced by informers. It was the same in other cities.

By mid December 2010, these kinds of writings had multiplied. In Damascus, and also in Homs and the rest of the country, leaflets listing their demands had been placed on the walls of schools, shops and mosques. Spontaneous protests were held in several places.

In early 2011, people gathered on Merjeh Square, near the Ministry of the Interior to demand the release of certain prisoners. Officers came out to talk to them and listen. I was not with them. But from what I was told, they spoke courteously with the protesters, whom they asked to disperse politely. The officers made some promises they did not keep, but, for a time, soothed the resentment. The protesters dispersed calmly once the discussions had ended.

On February 17 in Hariqa, following the heavy-handed arrest of a young man, shopkeepers and their customers gathered at the entrance of the souk. They took the opportunity to shout out about what they had suffered in silence for a long time, and that they had had neither the courage nor, until now, the opportunity to express.

Said Sammour, who was the Interior Minister, came to the scene. Although less capable than his predecessor, Bassam Abdel-Majid, he was able to contain the protest movement before it degenerated. The situation ended without violence and quickly vanished from the media.

The situation became more complicated with the events at Daraa. The death of young people, medical students killed in the night, with bullets or bludgeoned within the university campus of the capital led to widespread anger throughout the country. But who had given the orders to the authors of these murders for them to act as they did?

A State within the State

I must say a few words here about the decision making process in Syria. Everyone has heard of the Crisis Management Division, established at the beginning of the uprising and placed under the formal authority of the Assistant Regional Secretary of the Baath Party. Everyone also knows that the Syrian Ministry of Defence develops plans regularly to protect the country from aggression. What nobody knows, however, is that there is another instance of decision. It does not officially exist. It does not include the Minister of the Interior, or the Minister of Defence. It never acts in broad daylight but in the shade and this is where the decisions are made.

It is here that strategy is defined, not with the Crisis Management Division. It consists of officers from different services, selected one by one, by name, who are specifically assigned to their tasks and who work at the Presidential Palace. This committee, if one can call it such, since it has no name, is headed by Bashar al-Assad in person. And it is his will that prevails. When there is no particular emergency, members will use their status and privileges to organize their lives of leisure. I’m sure you understand.

In the spring of 2011, it would have been possible to contain the protest movement that later developed in the country. But for this to happen it would have been necessary to listen to the protesters’ demands, in Daraa, Homs, Hama, it would have been necessary to bring reasonable answers that would have allowed them to believe in a resolution of their grievances. Instead, violence was used against them. A violence that their behaviour did not justify.

In Homs, the General Mounir Adanov, Deputy Chief of Staff, and a general named Ali, a deputy director of the Military Security whose name I cannot recall, had been asked to restore order. But some radical Alawite officers, I am sorry to speak in a way that I disapprove, “wanted blood”. The former gave instructions not to open fire unless express orders from them were given. The latter therefore petitioned the local Police Chief, General Hamid Mer’ei. He refused to give them a power that was not in his prerogatives to give. I must add immediately that as a result of his refusal to give the order to fire on the demonstrators, General Adanov and the other General, were later dismissed for “health issues”. Their extremist colleagues had got them, and they were publicly bragging about it.

General Ali Habib, the Minister of Defence, who had refused to give the army the order to enter Hama, after opposing their entry into Daraa, experienced the same fate for the same reasons. It was said he was “sick”. I saw him afterwards. He was in fine health. All the other advocates within the government of a moderate strategy were gradually marginalized. I could mention here the General Manaf Tlass, but I prefer to say nothing about it because we are parents. In contrast, the “radicals” eager to fight and kill, they all remained in place.

To illustrate my point, here is what happened in Hama. The people of this city were peaceful and friendly. I know this because I lived and worked there for many years. They refused to resort to arms, the same as the people of Homs and other cities too. Traffickers and traders, whose names I know but I do not want to mention here, offered them weapons at any price that suited them. But they refused. They wanted to make a stand with words and not violence. They had rights and they maintained their claims that they wanted to be heard. They did not want to express themselves in armed confrontation. And they were willing to accept the consequences of their decisions. On July 1st 2011, the day of a huge gathering attended by perhaps half a million people, they unfurled a huge Syrian flag. They also erected a gallows for the “criminal” Bashar al-Assad, which they later removed.

I was there that day, on the terrace of the local Baath party headquarters, along with the political, administrative, military and security heads of the city. Governor Ahmed Abdel-Aziz was there, a very respectable man, the Commander of the Police, General Mahmoud Sa’oudi, the head of Military Security, Mohammed Muflih and the branch secretary of the Baath. Men responsible for ensuring security were gathered downstairs, in the same building. They watched the protest. The Governor had expressly forbidden anyone to open fire. All the previous protests had been held in peace. In fact, after the demonstrations, young people returned to the protest spots with brooms to clean up the streets.

The protest happened in front of us without any incident. None of the protesters were armed. But when the crowd reached Orontes Square, about 300 meters from where I was standing, gunfire erupted. According to an investigation by the police to which I had access, it came from twenty people, 22 to be precise from the Military Security, who had been joined by one member of State Security. All were Officers and all were Alawite Kurds. They had been transported to Al-Yaroubieh, then dispatched and hidden in different places. Mohammed Muflih was as startled and angry as I was regarding this unjustifiable intervention. It violated all instructions and it resulted in dozens of deaths. Since none of us had authorized this intervention – who had given the order?

In Syria, as I have said, there is a state inside the heart of the state. A state at the core of an already sectarian state, from which orders are sent without any respect for the regular hierarchy. In other words, it is not always the leaders of the military and members of the security services that are behind the orders to shoot to kill, which are, in theory, to be obeyed by the men under their authority. During another demonstration in Hama, a man was spotted while in position on the top of a water tower. He fired on the people. Brave young men approached him, captured and delivered him to the Military Security. It was only then discovered that he belonged to the very same service. He maintained that he had received direct orders to act as he did. So, the 23 men I mentioned above were transferred elsewhere without any proper investigation, and most importantly, without being condemned for what they had done. The same thing happened in Homs, a large number of peaceful citizens were killed in identical conditions.

Young people gathered on April 18 for a sit-in in the centre of the city, at the base of the old clock. All officials involved in security were at the Police Head Quarters, close by. Envoys went to negotiate with those who occupied the square to convince them to evacuate. They were a few thousand demonstrators, between 5,000 and 10,000 perhaps. They refused to leave. In the middle of the night, we held a meeting with General Mounir Adanov, who was already there, to decide what was to be done. We asked the young people once more to leave the square, taking any route they wanted. But while talks continued, officers of mukhabarat jawwiyeh – the Security Service of the Air Force – which had been dispatched from Damascus to “disperse the thugs” began to spray the crowd with bullets. They killed dozens of people. They were obeying orders to shoot on sight that were given by senior security officials.

Once again we are speaking about invisible forces, but powerful enough to give direct instructions to the members of their organization. These members are agents from diverse intelligence services. They can also come from other departments, such as Education. It is, no more no less, as I have said, a state within the state.

The members of this “commission” intervene in all areas. For example, while the protests were in their fourth month, the Ministry of Interior started looking for specific policing apparatus. The streets were on fire, but the number of dead still few. We were looking for appropriate methods to deal with the circumstances. We had begun discussions with the Turks who had agreed to sell us plastic shields, metal helmets, batons … for the police and security forces. But despite the fact that the deal was done and that we had agreed on the dispatch of the materials, the quantities and prices, and there were no more signatures needed, I received an order from the Presidential Palace. I was told to abandon the project, drop the Turks and acquire these materials from the Iranians. In fact, at the higher levels there had never been any intention of doing business with the Turkish government.

So I requested an appointment with the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, that I obtained immediately. Composed of a dozen experts, the delegation that I was leading was met by the Ambassador himself. We met with the entire staff of the Embassy immediately, the political advisors to the military and the cultural attachés. Before we had time to explain the reason for our visit, they told us they were ready to meet our equipment needs, both in terms of quality and quantity, as soon as possible. Nothing could be easier. Manufacturing would be quick, they explained to us in detail, because all weapons produced in their country belonged to the state. The delivery would be immediate, since every day two planes with pilgrims from Iran arrived in Damascus. We also explained that we only needed protective or defensive equipment. We were not looking for lethal weapons.

The Ambassador, dressed as a Shia cleric and speaking with great authority told us: “You can request anything you want. If you want Ahmadinejad to come in person to Syria, let me know. He will be there the next day.” We were surprised to find that he had knowledge of what was happening in every corner of our country, knowledge at least as detailed as ours. He acknowledged contacts with Bouthaina Shaaban at the Palace. Speaking in the name of his President, he seemed to enjoy an unusual capacity in decision-making, especially for an Ambassador on this kind of subject. It was something I had never seen before, even among Russians. He wanted to give us gifts. I refused. He insisted. I continued to refuse. He then suggested we share a light meal before leaving. I agreed. While we were seated, a woman came in without knocking. She was not wearing the chador, the veil usually worn by Iranian women. She walked around the room, and after exchanging glances with the Ambassador, whom I was sitting opposite, she left without saying a word. I realized later the message that the ambassador had wanted to give us: “You refuse my gifts, but will you refuse everything I can offer you?”

“There are no Christians among the victims? That’s impossible… none of them are dead?”

I must now say a few words about the indiscriminate attacks that occurred in Damascus at the end of 2011 and in early 2012. I can confirm that all these spectacular operations were carried out by the regime. And if not all of them, very nearly all of them. You can take this as reliable and corroborated information. Either way I will only speak here of attacks for which I have first-hand information, transmitted by officers who conducted the investigation. I’m not talking about ordinary officers, but members of the secret cell I mentioned previously.

The first attack took place December 23, 2011, outside the headquarters of the Kafr Sousseh State Security. Others followed, on March 17, 2012, outside the headquarters of the Air Force’s Intelligence Service, the mukhabarat jawwiyeh, and in front of the Criminal Safety Department.

Regarding the attack against the Air Force’s Intelligence Service, it should be noted that the building was empty. It was guarded, but in advance of the attack, it had been emptied of its furniture and the occupants evacuated. As surveillance cameras attest, the minibus that exploded in front of its wall was parked there for two days before it exploded… We were presented with the bodies of 25 victims on the television. Two or three, at most, were killed in the attack. Unfortunately they were just passing by. Some residents of the nearby Christian area – Qasaa – had been traumatized by the sound of the explosion. Others were injured by flying glass. But none of them had been killed. As soon as the Minister of the Interior reached the scene with the heads of various intelligence services he inquired to the losses suffered by the Christians. When he heard that no Christians had died in the explosion, he exclaimed: “What, there are no Christians among the victims. That’s impossible – none of them are dead?” as if, in fact, the operation had failed because its objective was to terrorize the community by killing some of its members!

One of the attacks on the 23 December 2011 had targeted the headquarters of the so-called Far’ al-Mintaqa of the State Security (General Intelligence). Minutes after the explosion, General Rustom Ghazaleh, head of this branch, was on site. State media claimed the operation had killed 45 people, a record. But I can assure you that the majority of people believed to have died at that time were in fact killed elsewhere and otherwise. The operation was carried out on a Friday morning. The explosion occurred at a time when, apart from a few pedestrians, nobody is on the street. There were only two or three officers on duty outside the building. Unlike weekdays, there were no Friday gatherings of detainee relatives, come to request an official document, an early release, a right of access etc. Only the wall of the building in question had been affected and partially destroyed. There is no doubt that that case was also fabricated by the regime. Some officers of the intelligence services say in private that they believe that the order came from Bashar al-Assad himself.

So where did the bodies come from? They had simply been brought to the scene. A friend of mine told me about a shopkeeper he knew, in Homs, who owned a refrigerated truck. He used it to transport fruit and vegetables. The Mukhabarat found him and ordered him to follow them with his vehicle. They went to the military hospital in the city, which faces the Military Academy, called the War School. He parked his truck inside the hospital and was told to wait. They opened the truck and piled the corpses inside. Then they told him to take the road to Damascus, where he was escorted and where the bodies were delivered. The next day, the attacks began, showing decomposed bodies…

An officer friend told me: “80% of us are not with Bashar al-Assad. Everyone knows that the father of Rami Makhlouf was poor and look what he has today, we have nothing to do with the murders, rapes, robberies happening today. What can we do?”

All young people in Syria can be arrested. Even officers’ sons are not safe. They can be arrested just like the others, sometimes at the checkpoints that protect and separate the different neighbourhoods, sometimes at home. Then, after a few days, weeks or months, their corpses are returned to their relatives. The Mukhabarat respect no law when they search houses and make arrests. What crimes had these kids committed? They were simply protesting peacefully. They only demanded more freedom and more dignity.

The French version of this interview was first translated and published by Ignace Leverrier on his blog “Un oeil sur la Syrie”, hosted by Le Monde’s website.