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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Missing Syrian Official Discussed Defection in Twitter Dialogue, Activist Says

As my colleague Rick Gladstone reports, the recent disappearance of Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, has been followed by unconfirmed reports about his possible defection.

Three weeks ago, when Syrian activists first suggested that Mr. Makdissi had defected to the opposition, Hezbollah's Al Manar television in neighboring Lebanon claimed that he had been fired. After the Guardian correspondent Martin Chulov reported on Monday that Mr. Makdissi had fled to the United States and was helping American intelligence officials “build a picture of decision-making in the inner sanctum of the embattled regime,” Am erican officials told The New York Times that the missing spokesman was not in the United States and had not flown to London earlier this month.

Part of a private Twitter message a Syrian activist directed at a senior official in July. Part of a private Twitter message a Syrian activist directed at a senior official in July.

As the global search for Mr. Makdissi intensified, a well-known Syrian opposition activist, Rami Jarrah, released what he said were transcripts of a private Twitter dialogue he conducted with the Syrian official in July, in which the spokesman expressed sympathy with the opposit ion to President Bashar al-Assad's government.

According to Mr. Jarrah, who coordinates a network of media activists in Syria and blogs under the pseudonym Alexander Page, as he pressed the spokesman to embrace the uprising in late July, Mr. Makdissi replied: “Do you think that I am blind to the heroic actions of the Syrian people? I can see it all clearly. The main problem that prevents me, or I can say most Syrian diplomats from openly joining the movement are the opposition ‘representatives.'”

While it is impossible to independently verify that Mr. Makdissi wrote the Twitter messages to Mr. Jarrah sent from his @Makdissi account, the opposition activist has been a reliable source of information in the past. On Tuesday, he released dozens of screenshots that appear to show how two extend ed conversations with the spokesman unfolded on his iPhone.

Near the end of the long exchange documented in the screenshots posted on Mr. Jarrah's Facebook page and Twitter feed, both men were sharply critical of the opposition Syrian National Council.

Mr. Jarrah, who was raised in Britain, was forced to flee Da mascus last year after he ran into trouble with the security forces for recording some of the first anti-Assad demonstrations on video. In an e-mail to The Lede on Wednesday, Mr. Jarrah wrote that he has transcripts of more conversations with the former spokesman. “But,” he wrote, “I cannot release them until I know for certain where Makdissi is and, of course, what he intends to do.” He added: “I played no role in his defection and I am not sure that he has in fact defected.”

The activist said that he had opened channels to other members of the Assad government in addition to Mr. Makdissi. “He is not only the one, but given that this one has become public, I have lost my ability to continue coordinating with others.”

Mr. Jarrah said that he had not been in touch with Mr. Makdissi since the former official left Syria and was not certain that the final message he received from the @Makdissi Twitter account , at the beginning of this month, had been written by the spokesman.

The activist said that he had released the transcripts as a kind of warning to any foreign intelligence service that might wish to distort the truth of Mr. Makdissi's defection, if it has taken place. “A lot has happened in terms of political maneuvering over the past month and it seems that there are interests from numerous sides in portraying the situation in a distorted manner,” Mr. Jarrah wrote. The transcript of his conversation with Mr. Makdissi was published, he said, to illustrate “that social media has its ways. We will not accept fiddling with reality. Information that I'm sure will soon be introduced around the ‘Makdissi Defection' will be watched closely and anything out of balance will be challenged with proof.”

As David Kenner explained on Foreign Pol icy's Passport blog, Mr. Makdissi, “a former diplomat at the Syrian embassy in London and a member of the country's Christian minority, had been the face of the Syrian regime to the English-speaking world.” On July 23, just one day after he apparently expressed sympathy with the opposition in the private Twitter chat, Mr. Makdissi appeared on Syrian state television telling foreign journalists: “Any stocks of W.M.D. or any unconventional weapon that the Syrian Arab Republic possess would never be used against civilians or against the Syrian people during this crisis.”

A Syrian state television broadcast in July showed the foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi responding to reports that Syria could use chemical weapons agai nst insurgents.

Following in Mr. Jarrah's footsteps, another Syrian activist decided to release what he said was a transcript of a private Twitter conversation with Mr. Makdissi. The activist, who blogs under the pseudonym Edward Dark from Aleppo, was a strong supporter of the anti-Assad protest movement, but has been an outspoken critic of the armed rebels who turned his city into a battlefield in recent months.

The transcript of that conversation posted online on Wednesday suggests that the exchange began as a discussion of Mr. Makdissi's comments in late July on Syrian weapons of mass destruction. According to the transcript, that discussion also focused on the need for dialogue between the government and the opposition, but it ended with a sudden description of violence by government forces from the activist in Aleppo:

@edwardedark: What the hell is going on? Your army is shelling civilian buildings inside Aleppo indiscriminately. Why? …

@Makdissi: Oh my god…. Stay safe.