Bassam Barabandi, a diplomat in the Syrian embassy here, was leaving Ramadan prayers at a mosque late one night two years ago when he ran into an opponent of the Syrian regime. Mr. Barabandi knew the man slightly and offered him a ride home.
The chance conversation that followed transformed the diplomat’s life. It also altered the fortunes of scores of Syrians working to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I need to ask you something,” the regime opponent, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, said as they trundled through Washington in a rusty Audi 2000. “There are these activists, and they need passports.”
Mr. Barabandi thought for a few seconds, then said he would help.
War forces people to think about which side they are on and how much they are prepared to do for it.
Mr. Barabandi, a career Syrian diplomat, became an opposition mole, working on behalf of moderate elements battling the Assad regime. With limited U.S. support, these groups have been struggling to hold on amid a battering from Syrian regime forces and Islamist militants competing for the same territory. The White House now is promising to provide support, mainly to help counter the militants, known as Islamic State.
In his embassy post over the course of a year, Mr. Barabandi issued travel documents for nearly 100 Syrian activists, according to interviews with him and more than a dozen opposition leaders. Through his efforts, activists were able to flee and campaign against the same regime he officially represented.
Mr. Barabandi kept the arrangement secret even from his family. Associates used cryptic messages to arrange rendezvous points. Unmarked envelopes were exchanged on street corners or thrust through car windows.
Mr. Barabandi couldn’t be certain whom he could trust in the opposition. Even those who received passports weren’t told how they had been obtained.
Opposition figures in the U.S. and Europe say Mr. Barabandi has been a lifeline. Besides antiregime activists, he obtained passports for ordinary Syrians blacklisted by the Assad regime, according to interviews and Syrian government documents. He also secretly passed information about the regime to the Syrian opposition and U.S. lawmakers, helping identify targets for sanctions later imposed.
Mr. Barabandi, 44 years old, grew up in Damascus in a middle-class Sunni Muslim family. A grandfather and granduncle served in parliament. In recent years, many of his relatives supported the Assad regime, while others dissented and fled or were jailed.