Russian Speakers Become Prey in Syrian Conflict

MOSCOW — Late last month, a Ukrainian blogger and journalist, Anhar Kochneva, sat on a couch in the place where she was being held by a Syrian rebel group and, as one of her captors filmed her, confessed to working at the behest of Russian intelligence services.

Her friends watched the clip on YouTube with a pit in their stomachs. Though the statement was clearly coerced — she identified a Russian military contact as “Pyotr Petrov,” the equivalent of “John Johnson” — it was the type of recording that could be used to justify an execution.

Urgent negotiations over the fate of Ms. Kochneva, 40, come at a dangerous point in the Syrian conflict, as armed groups with political and mercantile interests turn their attention to civilians. Tens of thousands of Russian citizens and other Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union live in Syria, scattered so widely that even ascertaining their whereabouts is a nearly impossible task.

The danger posed to Russians in Syria has come into increasingly sharp focus since Monday, when armed men kidnapped two Russian steel-plant workers and an Italian colleague not far from the place where Ms. Kochneva was seized. The daily newspaper Kommersant reported that their captors were demanding more than $700,000.

The next day, a Russian emergency services official told the newspaper Izvestia about contingency plans for an evacuation that could accommodate as many as 30,000 Russian citizens — or 60,000 if it included citizens from all the former Soviet countries. Russian warships were sent as part of that plan.

It is not just Russians who are coming under threat. One senior leader of the opposition movement, Haitham al-Maleh, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that both Russian and Iranian civilians “present legitimate military targets for militants in Syria” because their governments have supported Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

A similar threat came from masked men claiming to be Ms. Kochneva’s captors, who said on Ukrainian television, “Let not a single Russian, Ukrainian or Iranian come out of Syria alive.” Syria’s opposition coalition denounced such statements to a Russian news agency on Thursday, saying they were “in conflict with the principles and goals of the Syrian revolution,” but worries here have been stoked.

“The policy was clearly pro-Assad, so public opinion may count Russians there as potential victims,” said Aleksandr I. Shumilin, head of the Middle East conflict analysis center at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute for Canada and the United States. “This question has become inflamed because the conflict has reached a new stage.”

At the opening of an exhibit of her photographs in Moscow on Thursday, Ms. Kochneva’s 10-year-old daughter, Linda, looked on, twisting her hands, while a speaker described her mother’s fate as “a litmus test” for the Syrian opposition, a loose confederation that still lacks centralized control.

“When you start abducting journalists, it shows that you are not exactly an opposition, but something closer to bandits,” Ashot Dzhazoyan, general secretary of the International Confederation of Journalists’ Unions, said in an interview. “If they let her go, we will understand that these are people we can deal with.”

Ms. Kochneva’s life in Syria was bound up with the Russian position. She learned Arabic as a child growing up in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, and remained passionate about the region as an adult, when she ran a travel agency in Moscow specializing in the Middle East. After a divorce, she moved to Damascus just as the conflict was heating up.

As a fierce opponent of Western intervention, she worked to help Mr. Assad’s government more effectively get out its side of the story, friends said. “She has a lot of energy,” said Ildar Gilyazov, a Moscow lawyer and close friend, “and she needed to expend this energy, and she also thought that the Syrian authorities were losing the information war.”

She made a reputation as a fixer and an on-the-ground contact for Russian journalists, who said her language skills allowed her to talk her way through military checkpoints. Friends say she lived in a shabby one-room apartment, but regularly appeared on Syrian state television and could claim a kind of celebrity. Her former husband, Dmitri Petrov, said Ms. Kochneva was once stopped by a woman on the street whose child said: “This is the woman on television! She was on television against the opposition!”

Friends say it was not unusual to see Ms. Kochneva set off alone, as she did in the city of Homs in early October. She contacted colleagues and family by phone to say she had been abducted.

Vadim Felilov, a Russian television journalist who spoke to her, said she had told him that a group from the antigovernment Free Syrian Army, or F.S.A., had saved her from a group of violent thugs, but then realized that she was a well-known pro-government commentator who had written scathingly about them. The rebels began to regard her as a valuable hostage.

Negotiations were halting and frustrating from the first. Mr. Felilov said he reached out to Ukrainian and Syrian officials but found them so overloaded with emergencies — like the evacuation of Aleppo — that her case barely registered.

 In the YouTube video posted in late November, her voice was halting as she said she had translated for Syrian and Russian military officers and worked on orders from Russian intelligence. Her acquaintances in Moscow universally dismiss the idea.

 Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Ms. Kochneva’s pro-government position was enough to complicate her case. “She became caught in the pinball game, and the F.S.A. wanted to make an example of her,” Mr. Tabler said. “Her case is one which shows — or is meant to show — Russia’s flagging influence or understanding of what is going on in Syria. There’s a lot of rising anti-Russian sentiment. She is from Ukraine, but to someone from Syria that wouldn’t have made any difference.”

 The effort to free Ms. Kochneva has now spread to international advocacy organizations that say the case represents a crossroads for the political opposition. A State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said last week that “we believe that this woman needs to be released.” A spokesman for France’s Foreign Ministry gave a similar statement on Thursday.

Cilina Nasser, a researcher for Amnesty International in Beirut, Lebanon, said that Ms. Kochneva was “at imminent risk of being killed, and we are really concerned about her.” She added that the Syrian opposition coalition, now recognized by many nations as the country’s legitimate representative, should be able to “stop this armed group from the execution or summary killing of a journalist.”