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11.06.11

Assad's Move Against Facebook

Bashar al-Assad is trying to snuff opposition in Syria by silencing the media and blocking access to Facebook and other Internet services. But author Rula Jebreal says the strong-arm tactics cannot thwart a people committed to his ouster.

While Muammar Gaddafi’s death was breaking news throughout the world, for five days Syrian state television totally ignored it.

Gaddafi’s fall is by no means the only thing the Syrian government tries to hide from its own people. At checkpoints throughout the country, armed soldiers ask everyone they stop whether he or she has access to the Internet, or a Facebook account. Give the wrong answer, and you risk losing not just your computer or cellphone but your life.

For the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the spread of information is an ever-present danger, making the media and the Internet public enemy No. 1. The regime seems to think that by silencing the media and forcibly disconnecting people from the Internet, it can escape the same fate as the Libyan dictator. But this tight-clenched control of information cannot combat mounting international pressure and a people who, despite upwards of 3,000 deaths in the past eight months alone, remain committed to Assad’s ouster.

Every day thousands of people fill the streets in major cities such as Homs, Daraa, and Hama, as well as suburbs of Damascus. Their ranks swell on Fridays as a tide of people leaves prayer services and takes to the streets. Under banners demanding freedom and the end to Assad’s regime, they march, calling for a no-fly zone and asking for international protection. After eight months of demonstrations, the only answer they have received from the government has been crushing and relentless force.

Even on the day after the Assad regime agreed to a plan, brokered by the Arab League, to halt violence, release 70,000 political prisoners, and begin talks between the government and the opposition, government brutality continued unabated. The moment peaceful protesters took to the streets, the Army gave its now-usual reply, slaughtering its own citizens.

The immediate fallout from the Arab League peace plan was only the beginning. Since the plan’s supposed implementation, excessive government violence actually has increased. Tanks and barricades never left the cities. Even during the holy month of Ramadan, the Army never stopped killing.

The spread of information is an ever-present danger, making the media and the Internet public enemy No. 1.

The new mission of the Army is not to protect the Syrian people but to keep the regime in power—at any cost. “They deal with us as if we were their property, and that will never change,” said dissident Wadid Hadad. Even children are not spared from the bloodshed, with 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib tortured and executed by security forces after he was found chanting, “People want to overthrow the bloody regime of Assad.”

Although the level of violence is unprecedented, hypocrisy and governing with an iron fist are nothing new for President Assad. Since taking power 11 years ago, he has promised reforms while forcefully quashing all debate and dissent. Recognizing the tenuousness of his hold on power—being a Shiite leader governing a majority-Sunni country—Assad has forged alliances with Sunni businessmen and enlisted Shiite-run security forces to ensure his total control over the Syrian populace.

Now, however, he faces not only the determination of an impatient and long-repressed citizenry but also increasing international pressure.

This pressure is not coming from the usual suspects, though. The United Nations actually emboldened Assad when a U.N. resolution to impose sanctions on the regime was struck down by China and Russia. This failure instilled in Assad and his forces the belief that they won’t be held accountable.

Assad’s latest words reveal his willingness to internationalize the conflict. In a recent interview, he promised that “any intervention in Syria will cause an earthquake that will burn the region.” Businessmen living in Beirut (whose fear of deadly repercussions led them to request anonymity) interpret those words as a direct threat to instigate and orchestrate sectarian warfare in Lebanon, with the support of Hizbullah. Assad's goal: to divert attention from the conflict within Syria.

Indeed, the regime has already internationalized the conflict, first by orchestrating the kidnapping of a Syrian dissident in Beirut, who was a major voice of dissent against Assad. Shibli al-Ayssami, along with three brothers, the Jassems, has not been heard from since they were whisked away by armed men in black masks whose cars bore Syrian government license plates.

Assad has even taken to taunting the international community, threatening, “Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or maybe tens of them?” and demanding that other countries stop interfering with his business.

But while he thinks the international community will let him rest easy, one country is determined—and likely—to prove him wrong. Assad angered Turkey, whose leaders felt lied to when they sought to help mediate the conflict between Assad and the Syrian opposition.

Since then, Turkey has been helping and sheltering anti-Assad fighters and opposition leaders. The country also recently hosted a training camp for a new militia composed of defectors from the Syrian armed forces. The Turkish government has deepened its support of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella political-opposition group.

Through these efforts, the conflict will shift from peaceful domestic protests to violent cross-border attacks. Over the past few weeks, a series of mysterious killings of Syrian soldiers seems to herald the advent of this new phase in the strife.

Although the outcome of the struggle in Syria remains uncertain, one thing is clear: after eight months, 3,000 people killed, and countless tortured, disappeared, and imprisoned, the Syrian people continue fearlessly protesting, determined to have the last word.