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Spreading the word

July 5, 2011

Just across the border, Syrians are doing what they can to help their countrymen fighting at home. That support is driven by the increasing use of social media which paved the way for change in Tunisia and Egypt.

man at a computer
Digital mobilization: Syrians are relying on social media to spread the wordImage: picture-alliance/Demotix/Aiham Dib

An oppressive regime, a brutal military and little promise of change: Unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, the uprising in Syria has faced seemingly insurmountable odds from the very beginning. This was the revolution, analysts predicted, that would not last as President Bashar al-Assad's forces were simply too powerful.

But more than 100 days after the first protests began in the streets of Daraa, the breadth and strength of the uprising stronger than as ever. And across the border in Turkey in refugee camps, Syrians wave flags, upload images of protests and try to help their countrymen while echoing the cries for change during popular Friday protests.

"Syria has never had this kind of popular uprising with mass protests on the street, Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington DC, told Deutsche Welle. "The Syrians right now have actually discovered the power of their voice, and the power of numbers."

That power, say many protestors, is thanks in part to digital technology. As the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt began earlier this year, Syrians, too, witnessed the images, voices and messages broadcast around the world. They carried forward the rallying cry into Syria in March, using cell phones and amateur cameras to document their own protests and inspire an ever-growing number of Syrians to join the movement.

"Small committees and small groups were created in the beginning among networks of friends in the same neighborhood," said Malath Aumran, of the Local Coordination Committee, the network of Syrian activists coordinating the uprising, speaking from Beirut. "They have good communication on the ground and also they use the internet for communicating between the cities and towns."

Revolution now

As the uprising has swelled in number, so too has the activity on social media networks, where human rights organizations and demonstrators post daily updates and upload videos. The Facebook page, "The Syrian Revolution 2011," has amassed more than 200,000 followers, creating a forum for protestors and their supporters around the world to share the latest news and encourage protestors to continue. Youtube video uploads from Syria have exploded, showing reels of rallies, demonstrations and violence.

Syrian at a computer
With no independent media reports, Syrians are using the web to show their videos of the violent protestsImage: AP

One Syrian young man, who fled across the mountains into the Turkish town of Güvecci, brought a USB stick carrying dozens of short videos he had taken during protests in his hometown of Lazkiye. The young Syrian man, who asked that his name not be used because he is in Turkey illegally, says he is spreading those videos via the Internet and will continue to fight for freedom from Turkey.

"This couldn't have happened earlier," he said of the mass protests. "Now we have cell phones and can talk to each other, and we know what is happening in other towns."

In one clip, he keeps recording while he runs from a wave of bullets and advancing Syrian troops. In another, the lens focuses on a young Syrian named Mohamed, a friend, lying in a pool of blood after he was caught in the line of fire.

"They have no regard for human life," said Abdul, referring to Syrian forces, who welcomed the Syrian and the other men into his home in Güvecci. Originally of Syrian descent, Abdul has lived in the Turkish town for several years. His home has become a central meeting place for a number of his families who have managed to escape safely across the border. There, they gather around the television to watch reports from Turkish television reporters and Arabic news networks.

"Look at the Syrian channels, they keep showing regular shows," laughed Abdul while flipping through a series of Syrian news and information networks. "They act like nothing is going on."

Sympathizers and friends in Turkish border towns have also helped, smuggling Turkish SIM cards across the border to Syrians hiding in makeshift refugee camps in the woods. Tapping into Turkish cell phone providers has allowed fleeing Syrians to send updates and messages without being tracked by authorities. Many there are planning their path to Turkey.

"We know how modern Muslims live now thanks to the Internet," said the young Syrian, referring to Turkey. "And that's how we want to live."

Raw images

Syrian protesters
Syrians are urging the world to take notice of their plightImage: dapd

But more than mobilizing masses of protestors, the images and voices strewn across television and online have also served to waken Syrians from what some experts called a four-decade-long slumber: Faced with raw, unedited proof of President Assad's brutal tactics, many have been forced to take a stance, driving a deep wedge between the government's supporters and the rest.

"The country is split now," said another young Syrian man who fled to Turkey. "Either you're with Assad or you're not."

He said that those who are openly supporting Assad are doing it because they are afraid. "Those against him won't give in until we have freedom."

Still, Syria's awakening has come at a heavy price: Human rights organizations estimate more than 1,300 people have died since the unrest began, and many more have been imprisoned. More than 12,000 Syrians now live in refugee camps on the in Turkey's Hatay province and have little prospect of leaving there, let alone returning home.

While many Syrians have vowed to topple President Assad's regime, some say they, like Libyans, face a unique challenge.

"What happened in Tunisia and Egypt was the leaders knew when their time was up," said Mohamed Hamadi, a 32-year-old lawyer who fled the town of Bdama with his wife and four children to Turkey where they now live in one of the five refugee camps. "Assad doesn't know that."

Still, some experts believe the movement has grown too strong and the international pressure on Assad too great for protestors to back down any time soon. Already, Assad is negotiating on restrictions for non-Baath party members to participate in government, a turnaround from three months ago.

"We are in the summer vacations now and the students are not at school and university, so it will extend further especially with the youth," said Wallid Saffour of the Syrian Human Rights Committee in London. "We expect that it will continue not only on Fridays but other days, morning and night, and this will have a very bad effect on the regime."

Author: Sumi Somaskanda, Syrian-Turkish border
Editor: Rob Mudge

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