BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian authorities have arrested a pro-government activist who launched a social media campaign calling on officials to provide information about hundreds of missing soldiers, residents and activists said on Monday.
The arrest on Friday has fueled an already unusually bold push by some government supporters to hold officials accountable for the rising death toll among President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists.
Before his disappearance, activist and lawyer Mudar Hassan Khadur represented a rare but growing voice of public dissent among Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam to which Assad and many of his top military and security advisors belong.
Khadur’s detention has further outraged many in the community, which has typically been more shy about public dissent even as the three-year-old conflict has left few Alawite families untouched by death.
Restrictions on the information flow from Syria make it difficult to gauge how widespread such sentiments are.
A post on Khadur’s Facebook page at the weekend said he had been arrested in Damascus after authorities had contacted him and promised to help investigate the fate of soldiers missing from an airbase seized by Islamic State militants last week.
In a rare display of shaming officials, the post, which was shared over 156 times, named two senior military officers as personally responsible for Khadur’s safety. Another post called on Assad to intervene.
“Mudar Khadur. Not a traitor. Not a collaborator. Not a terrorist,” said the post, referencing accusations that the Syrian government and its staunch loyalists typically use to describe rebels and dissidents.
“We must all stand with Mudar.”
Reuters attempted to contact Khadur over the Internet before his arrest, but received no response. There was no mention on Syrian state media of Khadur’s arrest.
Khadur’s campaign began after last week’s fall of Tabqa airbase, the last major position held by government forces in the northern Raqqa province, which is largely controlled by Islamic State, a hardline al Qaeda offshoot.
Islamic State militants later posted footage online appearing to show their fighters executing scores of captives wearing nothing but their underwear. They claimed to have killed 250 soldiers. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information from all sides in the conflict, said at least 120 have been confirmed dead.
Yet government-run Syrian media barely reported the defeat, calling it a tactical withdrawal, and avoided any mention of the fallen soldiers, which left many in the Alawite community particularly incensed.
“There are Alawite villages that have no more young men. They’ve been killed. And all this time, people thought their sacrifice would help end this crisis,” said an anti-government Alawite activist on condition of anonymity.
“But after Taqba, things have gotten very bad, and the government doesn’t even bother to tell us what happened. How much more can our community handle?”
Khadur may have provoked the authorities last month when he launched a Facebook page called Eagles of Taqba Military Airport shortly after the base’s fall. The page has so far received more than 12,000 likes.
After Islamic State footage of the executions surfaced, Khadur and a few other government loyalists, including the president’s cousin Douraid al-Assad, called for top officials including the defense and information ministers to resign.
Trending hashtags in Arabic included #MinisterofDeath, #FallenMedia, and #WhereAreThey - the last one a reference to a classic Arabic song that became symbolic of disappearances during the 1975-90 civil war in neighboring Lebanon.
The campaign has also garnered support - as well as wry commentary - from anti-government activists who have used the hashtag #WhereAreThey since 2012 in reference to disappeared political prisoners and dissidents.
“Freedom to Mudar and to anyone who calls the liar a liar and the tyrant and criminal a criminal,” posted one user.
“#WhereAreThey? With ISIS. Hahaha. Now the Alawites are waking up!!!” tweeted another, using a previous acronym for Islamic State.
Some responses pointed to the irony of the fact that an activist who was campaigning for information about missing people had now gone missing himself.
“Arrest of #WhereIsHe after he asked #WhereAreThey,” one user tweeted.
Editing by Alexander Dziadosz and Tom Heneghan