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

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, 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 followed.

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 Avaaz's briefings.) As of May, Avaaz has raised over $1.6 million for its Syria effort. 

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 a 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. Daniels and Bouvier, Tarif said, escaped largely without his help.) 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 weapons.”

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 the 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 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 Jarrah, 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 Avaaz's “network” of activists 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 network 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.

Update: Miles Amoore has contacted TNR to clarify that, while he cannot say whether Avaaz was integral to the overall escape mission from Bab Amr, he did witness Avaaz’s involvement in feeding information to activists involved with the mission. Furthermore, Amoore relied on Avaaz for information throughout the 10 day saga, up to and including when he was in touch with Rami Jarrah towards its conclusion. Also, Amoore wished to state more precisely that he did not observe Tarif losing touch with “most” of the captive journalists, but rather only two of the four.