U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford confirmed to The Cable widely held suspicions that the Syrian government is arresting and torturing Syrians whose family members have spoken out against the regime here in the United States.
The FBI is investigating claims that the Syrian embassy staff in Washington has been collecting information on Syrian-Americans in and around Washington, especially those who dare to protest against the regime. That embassy is led by Ambassador Imad Moustapha, who has updated his blog only intermittently since the outbreak of violence in Syria.
Ford did not directly accuse Moustapha of spying on American citizens and transmitting that information back to the regime, to be used to punish family members as part of an organized campaign of fear and intimidation. But he said that those families are being tortured.
"We know of families here in Syria who have been arrested, who have been beaten, whose homes have been broken into, because of activities against the Syrian government - participation in marches, for example - by family members in the United States," Ford said in a phone call from his post in Damascus.
Ford said he couldn't comment on the Moustapha investigation specifically, but confirmed that the State Department is tracking these cases and has evidence of multiple instances of retribution against Syrian-Americans by the Assad regime.
"We know of at least three instances of that. How does the Syrian government know about [the Syrian-Americans' activities]? You and I can speculate," Ford said. "We do know of families that were attacked here. It's really serious."
Without directly accusing the Syrian embassy in Washington of spying, Ford said, "It is entirely unacceptable for any foreign embassy in the United States to facilitate the harassment of American citizens."
The Wall Street Journal has reported on several claims by activists of retribution brought down on their Syrian-based family members. Ford's comments represent the highest level public acknowledgment of these activities to date.
At Ford's confirmation hearing in August, Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) spoke about how the regime treats those Syrians who try to maintain contacts in the United States.
"The terrible reach of this regime has directly affected constituents in my home state of Pennsylvania," said Casey, who told the story of Sakher Hallak, a Syrian who traveled to the United States to attend a medical conference with his brother Hazem Hallak, a Syrian-American living near Philadelphia.
"Upon his return to Syria, Sakher was missing. His wife contacted the authority to confirm that he was in their custody but would be released shortly," Casey said. "Two days later, his body was discovered in a village 20 miles south of Aleppo. The authorities then denied that he was ever in their custody and claimed that they found his body in a ditch, by the side of the road."
"Sakher's body was subjected to brutal torture. His bones were broken and his body was mutilated in unspeakable ways," said Casey. "Sakher was not a political activist. He was not involved in the demonstrations. His sole offense appears to be his visit to the medical conference and his visit with his brother in the United States of America."
If the Syrian regime's intention was to intimidate Hazem Hallak, their strategy surely backfired. He became an outspoken and fierce critic of the regime in response to his brother's death.