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[liberationtech] The Great Escape: Has Avaaz Been Lying About Its Role in Syria?

Yosem Companys companys at
Tue May 29 06:14:04 PDT 2012

Published on *The New Republic* (

 The Great Escape: Has One NGO Been Lying About Its Role in Syria?

   - Simon van Zuylen-Wood
   - May 27, 2012 | 12:00 am

 Around 8 a.m. on February 22, Syrian security forces attempting to prop up
the Bashar al Assad regime shelled a makeshift media center in the Baba Amr
neighborhood of Homs, killing the American war reporter Marie Colvin and
the French photographer Remi Ochlik. Four other journalists who survived
the blast, including Colvin’s Irish photographer, Paul Conroy, and French *Le
Figaro *journalist Edith Bouvier, who were transported to a nearby hospital
and treated for serious shrapnel wounds. Bouvier’s colleague, the French
photographer William Daniels, accompanied them, while Spanish *El
Mundo *reporter
Javier Espinosa stayed behind to report near the now-decimated center. For
almost a week, the surviving journalists remained trapped in Homs.

On the morning of February 28, the activist organization Avaaz reported
that it had coordinated Conroy’s escape to Lebanon and that 13 activists
within its network had been killed in the effort. “This operation was
carried by Syrians with the help of Avaaz,” read the press release. “No
other agency was involved.” By the end of the day, Avaaz founder Ricken
Patel had been interviewed on CNN and the BBC, and *The Guardian* had
published a short profile titled, “The activist organisation behind Paul
Conroy’s rescue in Syria.” Admiring profiles in *Time *and on NPR soon

A week after his escape, I called Conroy, who was recovering in a London
hospital, to ask him about Avaaz’s role. “I can sum it up in one word,” he
said. “Bollocks.” Conroy had never heard of Avaaz, he told me, until he
“saw them on television, saying how [they] helped me get out.” Has Avaaz, a
group that quickly became a darling among Arab Spring sympathizers in the
West, been lying all this time?

FOUNDED IN 2007, Avaaz is a New York-based advocacy group modeled on MoveOn
that blasts e-mail petitions to some 14.5 million members. The petitions
span a wide spectrum of causes—recent targets range from corruption in
India to bee-killing in France. (The Rupert Murdoch phone hacking scandal
has been a particular focus.) Its activities are not entirely virtual,
however: It provided aid to Burma after the 2008 cyclone and distributed
proxy servers to dissidents during Iran’s Green Revolution. The
100-employee organization has staff in dozens of countries, with small hubs
in Delhi, Sydney, and London.

Avaaz’s on-the-ground engagement in Syria has earned the organization its
recent fame. Avaaz says it was one of the first NGOs to react to murmurs of
rebellion in the country. “Everyone told us that Syria wasn’t going to blow
up,” 35-year old Avaaz founder Ricken Patel told me. “We didn’t buy that.”
In April 2011, Patel hired a veteran Lebanese activist, 37-year-old Wissam
Tarif, to run the Syrian mission.

Based in Beirut, Tarif helped smuggle medical supplies into Syria, as well
as more than 35 western journalists, including four in Conroy’s group. He
also oversaw the training of ordinary Syrians who subsequently re-entered
their country to report on what was going on. As Syria became increasingly
dangerous and difficult to penetrate, Western journalists came to rely ever
more on Avaaz’s daily e-mail briefings, which compiled information from 200
such Syrian “citizen journalists.” (About 600 reporters receive Tarif’s
briefings.) As of May, Avaaz has raised over $1.6 million for its Syria

When I first spoke with him in March, Tarif put himself—and Avaaz’s network
of activists—at the center of Conroy’s escape. After several failed
attempts to coordinate the journalists’ escape with the Red Cross, a group
of activists who ran the decimated Homs media center began planning an
alternate route: They would drive the group from a Baba Amr field hospital
to the entrance of a three-foot tall, five-kilometer underground drainpipe
that would bring them outside the city limits. From there, other activists
would transport them to the border.

Tarif contends that activists on either end of the tunnel—in and out of
Baba Amr—could not reach one another, and relied instead on him to
coordinate the timing of the escape via satellite phone. (Tarif told me he
could reliably reach activists by Skype and satellite phone from his hotel
suite in Beirut.) Only Conroy and Espinosa initially made it through the
tunnel; the other two, slowed by the injured Bouvier, were forced to turn
back when it appeared Syrian security forces were targeting the drainpipe’s
exit. After Conroy emerged from the tunnel, Tarif says, he personally
coordinated his arrival at various checkpoints on the way to the Lebanese
border. (Tarif says he played a similar coordinating role with Espinosa a
day later.) Once Conroy arrived in Beirut, with shrapnel lodged in his
stomach and a deep gash in his leg, Tarif met him and drove him to
Espinosa's girlfriend's apartment. Conroy refused to go to a hospital,
asking only for “the best painkiller you have and a glass of whiskey,”
Tarif told me.

When I spoke to Conroy, he confirmed that Tarif picked him up in Beirut;
Conroy’s *Sunday Times *colleague Miles Amoore, in Beirut at the time, was
the first to learn of Conroy’s arrival and alerted Tarif when he found out.
But the overlap between the two accounts ends there.

In Conroy’s version, Avaaz played no part in the exit from Syria. From the
moment the media center activists transported him to the Baba Amr hospital
until he reached the border, Conroy told me, he was in the hands of the
Homs-based Farouq Battalion of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Much of his
escape, from the tunnel exit, to the Syrian border, was spent on the back
of a FSA motorcycle. “The activists … don’t carry you about,” he told me,
explaining how he was sure he was smuggled by the FSA. “They don’t carry

Javier Espinosa, who Avaaz says was rescued by the activists in its
network, told me from Beirut that his rescuers were a hodgepodge of
activists and FSA members, none of whom had any clear affiliations with
Avaaz. Espinosa’s account was confirmed by his girlfriend Monica
Garcia-Prieto, a Spanish magazine journalist who stayed in a Beirut hotel
suite with Tarif, where friends and colleagues of the trapped journalists
were congregating. Garcia-Prieto, who is based in Beirut, told me that the
FSA was primarily responsible for bringing Conroy and Espinosa from the
drainpipe exit to Lebanon, without Avaaz’s help.

As a matter of course, she added, Avaaz’s network of activists belonged no
more to Avaaz than it did to anyone else. “There were a lot of activists
willing to cooperate with anyone who was coordinating the operation,” she
told me. “But you know—it doesn’t mean they have people of their own… They
were talking to them as they are talking to me or you or anyone else.” And
even though Avaaz was trying its best to coordinate the escape,
Garcia-Prieto says, its own contacts were limited. She says Tarif recruited
her to help with the mission precisely because she was better sourced than
he was. Amoore, Conroy’s colleague from the *Times*, came to a similar
conclusion. Though Amoore told me Avaaz helped relay information to
activists during the early stages of the rescue mission, he said Tarif
eventually lost contact with most of the journalists. Instead, while in the
hotel suite with Tarif, he began to rely on Rami Jarrah—a 28-year-old who
directs an opposition group from Cairo—for on-the-ground intelligence.
Tarif “just didn’t have it,” Amoore says.

WHEN I CONFRONTED Patel last month with the testimony of these journalists,
Patel conceded that it was the Free Syrian Army—with whom Avaaz had no
contact—that indeed pulled off much of Conroy and Espinosa’s escape. When I
asked Patel why Avaaz didn’t give any credit to the FSA it its initial
press release (or any time thereafter), he told me the original statement
was written hastily in the middle of the night, and that he didn’t want the
media calling up any other organizations, for fear that they would leak
information about the remaining journalists’ whereabouts. By funneling the
media toward Avaaz, Patel says, he was trying to protect the journalists’
safety. (Avaaz still has not corrected or updated its press releases about
Conroy and Espinosa’s rescues. In response to my questions, Avaaz sent me
two documents that credit the FSA with much of the escape and downplayed
Tarif’s role, but they don’t appear to have been released publicly.)

That leaves the question of what, exactly, Avaaz did do. Avaaz was
certainly in contact with the Baba Amr activists during the early stages of
the operation. But Patel brushes aside questions about Avaaz’s precise role
in coordinating their activity. In March, when I pressed him in his Union
Square office, he told me that I misunderstood not only the situation, but
his group’s entire philosophy. “When people hear ‘coordinate’ “they think
‘command and control,” he said, his frustration showing. “That’s not the
way the world works now. The world is moved and changed by networks of
people.” In other words, the activists responsible for the rescue may not
have all been using Avaaz equipment or following Tarif’s instructions.
Rather, Tarif was relaying information back and forth from Syria to Beirut,
or from one activist to another. The Syria mission, in other words, was an
extension of the group’s emphasis on crowd-sourced, rather than top-down,
decision-making. “There is this march of democracy sweeping the world,”
said Patel, “and Avaaz is one of the vessels for that march.”

Such claims are unlikely to mollify the activists who Garcia-Prieto says
feel “manipulated” by Avaaz. Rami
the activist Amoore relied upon when in Beirut, was livid over Avaaz’s
claim that the 13 people who had died in the rescue mission were
Avaaz-supported activists. “What they’ve done is immoral,” he told me.
“They’ve taken advantage of the death of thirteen people to suit their
media campaign.” (It was this claim that particularly irked Conroy, who
told me that the three activists Avaaz reported were killed rescuing him
were in fact Free Syrian Army members.) Nour Edies, a 23-year old Syrian
who works in Lebanon for the activist group the High Commission for Syrian
Relief, was equally cynical: “Avaaz lies to make people give them money."

Avaaz claims that such harsh words are the product of inevitable rivalries
between activist groups. They may have a point. Jarrah’s claims that “in
Syria, no activists are supported by Avaaz” and that it doesn’t send in any
technology for citizen journalists is contradicted by much testimony and
evidence. Edies, for his part, seems to have inflated his own group’s role.
He says the HCFSR brought Espinosa across the Lebanese border, whereas
Espinosa told me representatives from the group only picked him up after he
had arrived safely in Lebanon, with the FSA.

Still, the FSA played a demonstrable role in the journalists’ escape—one
that Avaaz doesn’t appear to have mentioned. And at least according to
Prieto, some of the activists who Avaaz has credited are not pleased to be
associated with the group. While Patel maintains that it’s the media—not
him—that has overemphasized Avaaz’s role in Syria, he hasn’t done much to
correct the false impression.

By all accounts, Tarif and Patel deserve credit for smuggling medical aid,
journalists, and information technology in the midst of Syria's crisis. And
the amorphous “networks” of Avaaz members that Patel touted when I spoke
with him were undoubtedly instrumental in facilitating that work. But
neither Patel nor Tarif seems to have considered whether the moral clarity
of their group's work could be easily reconciled with the amorphous nature
of the networks on which they relied. At the least, the temptations of
power and fame seem to have encouraged Avaaz to sacrifice one of its most
fundamental principles: That truth is an activist’s greatest weapon.

*Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.*
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