REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Syrian authorities, apparently trying to discourage opposition members from granting media interviews, falsely claimed that the identities of two anonymous exiles interviewed by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot were exposed, the newspaper reported.
Syrian television and at least one website presented a letter allegedly written on Yediot Aharonot's letterhead that claimed to expose the exiles, but the newspaper said the letter was a fabrication.
The incident, according to an account the newspaper published Sunday, happened as follows:
Ten days ago, Yediot Aharonot published a weekend special featuring two Syrian exiles interviewed by the paper's veteran Washington-based correspondent, Orly Azoulay.
The two exiles undertook considerable risk by granting interviews to the Israeli paper. Syrian law defines as treason any meeting between Syrian and Israeli nationals. To protect the exiles and their families in Syria, Yediot Aharonot withheld their real names and used pseudonyms.
With what they said was firsthand knowledge of what Syrian leader Bashar Assad's regime is capable of doing and armed with horrific testimonies from their homeland, "Rahim" and "Amar" told Azoulay that they seek Israel's support in their move to put Assad on trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
They also presented Israeli readers with a different view of Syrians, said Israeli lawmaker Isaac Herzog, a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who has held meetings with Syrian exiles. For a few days, the Yediot Aharonot feature was available only in Hebrew and in print. But after an English-language translation went online, the story was picked up by Arabic-language websites and circulated on the Internet, where it evidently caught the Syrian government's attention.
Over the weekend, Syrian television and at least one website presented a letter appearing to be printed on Yediot Aharonot's letterhead. Among other things, the document appeared to expose the two exiles who gave the interview, and implicated them with involvement with U.S. diplomats and a former Israeli army officer.
Yediot Aharonot categorically rejected the letter as a fabrication and published its version of the chain of events in Sunday's paper under the title "The Syrian Bluff" (In Hebrew: Download Yediot)
Both Azoulay and Herzog stressed Monday that the names in the letter are not the men who spoke to the Israeli newspaper. According to Azoulay, Syrian authorities' purpose was to discourage opposition members abroad from speaking to the media by making it look like the Israeli newspaper exposed its sources.
"The Syrian regime doesn't know who the two are, so they are shooting in the dark, publishing names and fabricating facts and watching the families' reaction to see who gets nervous or makes a mistake that could reveal their identities," Azoulay told The Times.
Azoulay said the report was brought to her attention by her contacts, who were growing anxious that the Syrian regime could have ways of reaching them or their families, "including by trying to manipulate the Israeli media."
Herzog said the Syrian move was "an attempt to intimidate and terrorize opposition activists in exile through their families back home."
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: An image from AFP TV shows Syrian security forces walking toward anti-regime protesters as they demonstrators attempt to reach the main square in the city of Homs on Dec. 30. Credit: AFP/Getty Images