Mahmud an‑Nasir, former Syrian intelligence officer from Raʾs al‑ʿAyn:
»The Syrian regime’s crisis center gave the PKK instructions to murder Kurdish politicians, and the PKK carried them out«
KURDWATCH, May 18, 2014—Mahmud an‑Nasir (known as Abu Haris), b. 1962, married, six children, was employed by the General Security Directorate [also known as State Security]. He was responsible for the departments in office no. 330. In the eighties and nineties, he participated in several security training courses in allied countries. He worked in Raʾs al‑ʿAyn in the State Security’s Office for Parties no. 30, then in the data department until he broke with the regime in November 2011.
KurdWatch: What made you decide to work for the Syrian intelligence service?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: In 1981 I completed my qualification for university entrance. I was already a member of the Baʿth party at that time, and I registered to study law. During my studies, I was looking for a part-time job, and I submitted an application. A war was raging in Syria against the Muslim Brotherhood back then, so all applications for state employment were forwarded to the party and from there to the leadership of the Council of Ministers, where all decisions about public positions were made. After applying, I was initially assigned to the Grain Administration in al‑Qamishli. Soon, however, I received a summons to appear at the intelligence service and there learned that the Council of Ministers wanted me to work for the intelligence service. This is how I came to work for the intelligence service from the first semester of my studies onward.
KurdWatch: It is well known that the intelligence service practiced torture even then. What do you know about torture in the al‑Hasakah region where you worked at the time?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: I first witnessed torture in 2004 when the Kurdish revolt broke out. There were arbitrary arrests and explicit instructions to torture all those detained to compel them to confess. Afterwards the prisoners were turned over to the relevant departments. The Director of National Security, Hisham Bakhtiyar, coordinated the interrogations; in al‑Hasakah this was done by Muhammad Mansura. Many arrests only occurred because other people had accused those in question, even if they had nothing to do with the demonstration. People were slandered and then arrested on personal grounds.
KurdWatch: Do you know of cases in which torture led to death?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: I was not personally present during torture, but I know that brutal torture took place in all intelligence service facilities in Syria, in Damascus as well as elsewhere. Political prisoners in particular and above all members of the Muslim Brotherhood were tortured to death. One such case in the eighties was the son of Khalid Mullah Salman from Dawudiyah near Raʾs al‑ʿAyn. The security service sent the prisoner’s body from Damascus back to his family.
KurdWatch: When and why did you decided to turn your back on the regime? And how were you able to leave Syria?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: I decided to break with the regime when it became unmistakably clear to me that leadership was murdering peaceful demonstrators in cold blood and was itself the driving force behind the militarization of the uprising. An army recruit once came to my department. He had previously completed military service in Hamah and told me that there he and his comrades were given the order to mix with the demonstrators and shoot at security forces so that security forces had a pretense for attacking the demonstrators and shooting protesters. The militarization of the uprising was therefore originally orchestrated by the regime itself. That was one of the main reasons for me to make the break. I made contact with Syrian oppositional groups abroad, and they in turn instructed a Free Syrian Army (FSA) combat unit to bring me to safety. I was brought from Raʾs al‑ʿAyn to Manbij, and from there I was able to leave for Turkey two days later.
KurdWatch: Can you describe for us the intelligence department that you led in Raʾs al‑ʿAyn? What areas was it responsible for and how did you receive your information?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The department was set up like a small-scale intelligence headquarters. Our sectors were economic security, state security, and society. In general the intelligence service made use of information provided by employees from their respective social sectors. Additionally, the intelligence service recruited people who provided us with information for ideological or material incentives.
KurdWatch: What was your department’s relationship to the various Kurdish parties?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: It was the same with the Kurdish parties as with all other political parties in Syria, except that the Kurdish parties were additionally monitored by the General Security Directorate. We spied on the Kurdish parties, because we wanted to know what was happening behind the scenes. But we also maintained direct contacts to the leaders and asked them for their assessment of the events in Syria without giving them the sense that they were required to answer. We in the intelligence service gave them the impression that we were all equally concerned with the »welfare of the country,« and that they must cooperate with the security apparatus if only to prevent conflicts that would harm the country and its social structure. But the actual point was that everyone should be in line with the regime.
KurdWatch: Were there any Kurdish parties that worked in close cooperation with the Syrian intelligence service?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: We had ties to all the Kurdish parties, but our relationship with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was especially well-developed. The first generation of PKK‑leadership was comprised of people who had come to Syria from Turkey as leftist students. Therefore these people regularly travelled back and forth between Turkey and Syria. The PKK and the PYD has had an important relationship with Damascus, and we in the local offices were secretly in personal contact with them. We knew that both parties were close to the regime, but did not make this public. For example, when the PKK recruited young men and women in order to train them in Lebanon or the Iraqi Qandil Mountains, we received a corresponding letter from Damascus. From this letter we understood that there was an unspoken permission to let these young people travel to Lebanon, Iraq, or Turkey. This all happened prior to the Syrian uprising. The PYD has been very helpful for the Syrian intelligence service given that the PKK position as the dominant political party among the poorer classes and the lower middle class in Kurdistan, in other words those classes that could have been a danger for the state. Thus the PKK spared us a confrontation.
KurdWatch: And how was the relationship to the rest of the Kurdish parties?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: Most of the Kurdish party leaders had direct or indirect contact to the Syrian intelligence service, especially after the events in al‑Qamishli in 2004. How close the contact was depended on the size of the party. For example, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Yekîtî), which was then under the leadership of Ismaʿil ʿUmar, who has since died, had political clout in the Kurdish regions. Therefore it was important to the regime to have good relations with the head of the party. Ismaʿil ʿUmar’s cooperation with the regime was limited, however, so we were tasked with infiltrating the party at the local level. But when Muhiyuddin Shaykh Ali, who was known to be very close to the Syrian regime, took over party leadership relations improved considerably, and the regime had far better control of the party. With the Democratic Yekîtî and its leadership, the regime tried to anchor a more pragmatic approach among the Kurdish people.
KurdWatch: Which Kurdish party functionaries had the closest ties to the Syrian regime and the intelligence service?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The leaders of the PKK and the PYD, especially Salih Muslim, maintained the closest ties. After that, the following leaders in Syria deserve mention: Muhiyuddin Shaykh Ali, secretary of the Democratic Yekîtî, Muhammad Musa Muhammad, secretary of the Kurdish Left Party in Syria, Jamal Muhammad Baqi, secretary of the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Party, and Muhammad Salih Gado, secretary of the Kurdish Democratic Left Party in Syria.
KurdWatch: At the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, demonstrations against the Syrian regime also took place in the Kurdish regions. Why didn’t the security forces take any action against the Kurdish demonstrators?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The Political Council (Majlis Siyasi) and the PYD had an unofficial agreement with the regime that the Kurdish demonstrations were to remain peaceful. Kurdish party functionaries subsequently made contact with the organizers of the demonstrations at the local level and gave instructions that the demonstrations must remain peaceful and could only take place along predetermined routes. Care was taken so that no rallies were held in Arab regions or near security facilities. The Syrian regime made sure the Kurds demonstrated solely within the framework it set and was thereby relying on a Kurdish-Arab opposition. Under no circumstances were there to be joint Kurdish-Arab protests, which could have become dangerous for the regime.
KurdWatch: Does that mean that you had direct instructions from the regime not to take action against Kurdish demonstrations? And how did you deal with demonstrators that did perhaps pose a danger to the regime?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: Yes, it’s true that we had orders from Damascus not to take any sort of action against Kurdish demonstrations. We weren’t even allowed to plant agents at the demonstrations in order to avoid provoking an escalation. But we received information about politicians and demonstrators who had further revolutionary ambitions and sent corresponding reports to Damascus. From there the PYD was tasked with kidnapping or getting rid of such activists. And in fact the PYD did keep such people off the streets, by whatever means, in order to prevent any sort of revolutionary escalation.
KurdWatch: In your opinion and in the opinion of your intelligence office, which Kurdish politicians posed the greatest danger to the regime?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The development of a Syrian-national position within the Kurdish political scene set off alarm bells. Mishʿal at‑Tammu advocated for this position, which was not only a danger to the Syrian regime, but also to the rest of the Kurdish politicians who advocated for a very different position. Therefore the regime gave direct instructions to eliminate this man. Armed PKK men undertook this task. Only half an hour after Mishʿal at‑Tammu’s assassination, we received a warning from Damascus to be especially vigilant for fear of the Kurdish response. In contrast, the regime did not fear the Kurdish-national approach because this was something it could control and direct so that the Arabs would feel provoked and be predisposed to fight against the Kurds. In this way the regime established balance and stability in the sense that both sides were working against each other. In comparison, the Kurdish movement’s Syrian-national approach had called for rapprochement with the Arabs in order to oppose the regime together.
KurdWatch: Can you give us details about how the PKK and the PYD have cooperated with the Syrian regime since the beginning of the revolution?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The security authorities had instructions from Damascus to place Kurdish public life in the hands of the PKK. If soldiers who had deserted the Free Syrian Army (FSA) advanced into the Kurdish regions, the order stipulated that the security and military apparatus should turn to the PKK. This sometimes meant that entire areas and bases were ceded to the PKK. In order to avoid arousing resentment among the Arabs, the PKK was only permitted this latitude in the al‑Hasakah province. The intelligence service also strengthened the PYD and PKK by providing them with vehicles of all kinds. To avoid provoking the displeasure of Kurds and Arabs in light of a coordinated action between the regime and the PKK, it was agreed that armed party fighters would seize the vehicles in the security forces’ fleet. They were to subsequently remove the license plates and claim that the party had forcibly taken possession of these vehicles as the FSA did elsewhere. When FSA‑units actually did then advance to Tall Hamis and Raʾs al‑ʿAyn, the regime felt threatened and as a result left the party in control of all military facilities as well as the offices of the security forces, including weapons, so that the party could immediately oppose the FSA. Thus there was almost an official agreement between the PKK and the regime. The Kurdish fighters entered the offices, took over the facilities including arms, even signed certificates of transfer, and the Syrian security forces retreated from the Kurdish regions without any bloodshed.
KurdWatch: Did you meet with the PKK‑leadership to organize the transfer? Was there also resistance from individuals within the apparatus? What did the PKK offer the regime, and what did it receive in return?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The preparations took place centrally, then the instructions went to the directors of the local offices. They subsequently conferred with the local PKK‑leaders. As State Security consists predominantly of Arabs in the region, the following plan was devised to keep them from opposing the transfer of their facilities: The PKK was to surround the bases and the administration would make the statement: Do not give up the facility, but also avoid all clashes with PKK‑fighters! The longer such a siege persisted, the more frustrated the security personnel became. They then called the headquarters and asked for advice, whereupon they were given permission to switch their place of work. The facility was then ceded to the PKK. Thus action took place according to a barely concealed script. However, if FSA fighters laid siege to a base, the order was: Drive back the attackers with force and defend the facility to the last bullet or until death. The service provided by the PKK was that they protected the oil and gas fields and secured the oil supply to the regime from Rumailan and other areas in northeastern Syria. In return the PKK received one hundred fifty million Syrian Lira a month plus an additional eighty million Lira for the salaries of its fighters.
KurdWatch: How were the PYD and PKK able to increase their military capacity in such a short period of time? Did the Syrian security authorities also provide them with weapons?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: Previously the PYD/PKK only had light weapons. With the beginning of the uprising in Syria, additional light weapons were sent from the Qandil Mountains with Kurdish fighters who crossed the Iraqi border into Syria. Later the Syrian regime itself equipped the party fighters with weapons and ammunition. The regime engaged the PYD in combat and subsequently delivered weapons and ammunition from al‑Qamishli from army units there or via the airport. The military intelligence service coordinated these deliveries. This is how the PYD/PKK received dushkas, anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank weapons, missiles, and many other weapons.
KurdWatch: Which PYD and PKK politicians were the Syrian intelligence service in direct conversation with?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: In Damascus, the discussions took place with Salih Muslim, the chairman of the PYD as the Syrian branch of the PKK, but also with Bahoz Erdal, a PKK military commander. At the local level in al‑Hasakah province, intelligence officials from the field offices met with military leaders and party functionaries from the region, for example with Aldar Khalil or Jamshid ʿUthman.
KurdWatch: Did the Syrian intelligence service also influence the founding of the Kurdish National Council in al‑Qamishli? And were there agreements with the council?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The founding of the Kurdish National Council took place in light of the need for a unified Kurdish leadership that would be in a position to integrate all young Kurds and coordinate all Kurdish councils and parties. In particular, the goal was to monitor and control politically independent young people with revolutionary leanings that might be drawn to armed resistance against the regime. The idea did in fact originate with the Syrian intelligence service. The goal was a unified and controllable Kurdish discourse and the prevention of any possible development of a revolutionary movement against the regime. The regime’s agreements with the Kurdish National Council and the PYD were the same as the agreements that the PYD made with the National Council in the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, and these, too, were directed by the Syrian intelligence service. In Raʾs al‑ʿAyn, for example, our field office regularly held talks with the head of the local representatives of the National Council, Muhammad Salih ʿAtiyah. We instructed these representatives to keep the demonstrations under control and to prevent the use of slogans against the president or his family. The National Council abided by this and had at times greater and at times lesser success controlling the Kurdish public in this manner.
KurdWatch: And how was the Syrian intelligence service’s relationship to the government of the Autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: We in the regional field offices did not have deeper insight into any agreements with the government there. But we knew that the leadership of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan maintained a good relationship with the Syrian regime. That’s why it was possible for the PYD to hold assemblies and conclude agreements there. To the best of our knowledge, the government of the Autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq sought to keep the Kurds in Syria neutral and tried not to militarize the parties and groups with which it was affiliated.
KurdWatch: Do you know who within the government of the Autonomous Kurdistan Region participated in talks?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: I presume that the meetings between the Kurdish National Council and the PYD in Erbil were led by the same people who also led the talks with the Syrian intelligence service. That included leading figures such as Fadil Mirani, Masrur Barzani, Netschirvan Barzani, and Mahmud Gharghari. Ultimately this was about state interests, and perhaps the Autonomous Kurdistan Region was of the opinion that it was in its interests if the Syrian Kurds did not take part in the Syrian revolution so that the fighting would not spill into Iraqi-Kurdistan.
KurdWatch: You mention Mahmud Gharghari. Did he also have contact with the intelligence service?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The employees and functionaries of the Kurdistan Democratic Party/Iraq (KDP) in Syria were all in Damascus, and Mahmud Gharghari was something like an ambassador for the party with the Syrian regime and the intelligence service. He had an apartment in al‑Qamishli, and according to my information he met with the intelligence service there on multiple occasions and also supervised the founding of the Kurdish National Council. He was something of a communication channel.
KurdWatch: During the Syrian revolution many Kurdish political activists were killed, among them Mishʿal at‑Tammu, Nasruddin Birhik, and Jiwan al‑Qatna. Do you know who was responsible for these assassinations?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: I presume that their relatives and fellow party members know very well who killed them, but that the parties in question remain silent about it so that no further Kurdish blood is shed. The Syrian regime’s crisis center gave the PKK instructions to murder Kurdish politicians, and the PKK carried them out. We knew that the PKK had assassination lists, including ones that came directly from the regime. These included people that the regime found to be a threat and wanted them out of the way. But even the PKK murders that the regime did not order directly were surely in its interest.
KurdWatch: What do you know about the assassination of the political activist Mahmud Wali, alias Abu Janadi, in Raʾs al‑ʿAyn?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The initiators of this assassination are well known. After all, Abu Janadi had openly opposed the PKK. First he was warned with a beating so brutal that he had to be hospitalized. Everyone knew that PKK thugs attacked him. When he was assassinated several people witnessed it, but they were threatened with death should they make a statement.
KurdWatch: Were there plans for how to handle the Kurdish parties in the event that the regime prevailed against the revolution?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: If there were such plans, then they were made in Damascus, and we at the regional level had no knowledge about them. I presume, however, that the Kurdish politicians were promised a reward of sorts for preventing a military confrontation with the regime in that they would be granted a form of autonomy, if only at the municipal level. Surely the PKK would benefit the most given what they have already accomplished for the regime. In contrast, the Kurdish National Council has cooperated less with the regime, even though it has tried to offer itself as an alternative to the PKK. I also believe that the training of fighters for the National Council in Iraqi-Kurdistan was part of the plan to compete with the PKK for the regime’s favor.
KurdWatch: Which Kurdish party gave the regime the most reason to worry or be afraid?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: Strictly speaking, the regime was not afraid of any of the Kurdish parties. The Syrian-Kurdish Future Movement initially worried us because it proved popular among the revolutionaries and because it tried to dominate demonstrations and rouse the Kurds against the regime. But the intelligence service instructed the remaining Kurdish parties to take action against the Future Movement so that the party was soon isolated and weakened. The same thing happened with the so-called Kurdish coordinating councils. The parties attempted to replace these independent, nationalist-minded councils with ones that were dominated by party politics. You can also see this played out in which activists were assassinated: Most of them belonged to nationalist, not party-affiliated coordinating councils. But both the regime and the Kurdish parties were most afraid of people like Mishʿal at‑Tammu, who tried to bring together Kurds, Arabs, and other demographic groups.
KurdWatch: What were your instructions regarding the treatment of the Arab population of al‑Hasakah province in the event that they join the revolution against the regime?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The security headquarters in Damascus gave orders to prohibit the region’s Arabs from any participation in the demonstrations against the regime. The leaders of the Arab coordinating councils as well as the Arab tribal leaders were summoned and had to pledge that they would not participate in any demonstration opposing the regime. If the region’s Arabs demonstrated against the regime, we had free rein to arrest, torture, or eliminate them. It was very different than with the Kurds, since they were to be suppressed by the PKK.
KurdWatch: How did things stand with Muhammad Faris’ militias and the National Defense Army?
Mahmud an‑Nasir: The regime had concocted a particularly perfidious plan for them: The goal was to get the region’s Arabs to form self-defense militias that would not fight against the Kurds but would also remain strictly separate from the FSA and other groups. For this they received a lot of money. Of course, the plan was also that once the FSA was defeated and the Syrian uprising subdued, the Arab militias would fight against the PYD and PKK units until both sides laid low and the regime could emerge as the ultimate victor out of the battle for Syria.
March 15, 2014