Twittering Damascus

It was mesmerising to sit in Phnom Penh and “watch” on Twitter as events allegedly unfolded in Damascus overnight on 19/20 May and over the next 36 hours.

Early on Sunday morning I logged on to Twitter as normal, because since signing up a year or so ago, after a lot of initial scepticism, it has proved to be an excellent news source.  As I did so, reports were just coming in about an apparent major event in Damascus.  Assef Shawkat, President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law and a leading figure in the “crisis committee” assisting the President, along with five others was said to have been poisoned by the Free Syrian Army.  At the same time, heavy action was said to be occurring in the upscale suburbs of Malki, Shalaan, Abu Roumaneh and Mezze.  Reports then came in of action near the President’s palace a little away from these areas on the road out to Beirut.

This was all in the context of the struggle for Syria that began over a year ago in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”.  Depending on your point of view, Bashar was either holding out bloodily via a repressive regime, or he was holding out against a serious Al Queda presence amidst strenuous jockeying for position by the Turks and the Saudis with the sinister Iranian presence as the backdrop.  That is an exaggerated expression, of course, but in essence that is what has been contested in all quarters over the past year, the latest manifestation being that the UN mission devised by Kofi Annan had manifestly obvious shortcomings.

What has happened inside Syria is terrible: thousands of people dead or injured, thousands more arrested and tortured, thousands more decamped to Syria or Jordan or Lebanon, the economy in freefall, hardship widespread and the lives of millions disrupted.  In recent months serious car bombings have hit Damascus, the city to that point relatively free of major actions such as those faced in Hama, Homs, Daraa, Idlib, Deir al-Zor and elsewhere.  Now on the morning of 20 May things seemed to be stepping up a notch, with several points notable.

The Twittersphere was buzzing as the rumours/reports came in.  My regular account had a lot of news but #Syria and #Damascus, once accessed, were pumping out several tweets per second.  A large proportion were in Arabic, showing the accessional power of the social media because throughout this long Syrian saga, Twitter and Facebook have become prime weapons in smuggling out news.  An “heroic” chef was said to have poisoned the crisis committee members at their daily meeting late on the 19th, that they had been hospitalised and several were dead.

Against this, even a few hours after all the action began, mainline news sources such as newspapers online were either showing no reports on Damascus or were only starting to deal with it.  Even news channels like CNN were struggling to pick it up and say anything insightful with Al Jazeera, as usual, the only outlet close to keeping up..  Perhaps even more telling was the fact that agencies like Reuters and AP, in the midst of this unfolding Twitter deluge, were re-running reports of the previous day’s actions in Deir Al-Zor where a car bomb went off outside a military intelligence/security building.  That is, AP and Reuters were either not on to what was emerging about Damascus or were holding judgment.

As the morning deepened more stories/rumours emerged.  Planes were seen taking off from the military airport near the Presidential palace, the implication being that Bashar had fled.  The Umawiyeen Square traffic hub, near where I used to work, was also closed.  Gunfire was said to be heard all over the city, and the main TV station was under siege. The Shami Hospital area was sealed off, presumably because that was where Assef Shawkat and the other victims were taken.  Among those other victims were named General Daoud Rajha, the Greek Orthodox defence Minister; Hassan Turkmani, a former Defence Minister and key Assad regime member; Hishyam Bakhtyar, the National Security Advisor, and Mohammad Alshhar, the Minister of the Interior and strongman from Lattakia, the Alawite heartland and Assad power base.  If the stories were true and all these figures were dead, then this was a huge event.  Then came reports of a possible military coup.

This was the point at which both the strengths and the weaknesses of Twitter emerged.  The constant stream of news and commentary started to repeat itself and, as some more sober contributors noted, none of this could be verified.  Within a couple of hours the FSA was announcing on Al Jazeera and elsewhere that it was all so, but of course the FSA had claimed to carry out the attack so this was scarcely confirmation.  Many contributors swept this aside by saying that in Syria there never would be confirmation until a regime change was achieved.  It was all a bit circular.

Hours later the Government denials began appearing with at least some of the “victims” apparently appearing live on television declaring they were at their desks, it was all a giant fraud perpetrated by the FSA and the opposition to further undermine the Syrian state.  Some braver Twitter souls appeared to support Assad and doubt the true commitment and statements of the “revolutionaries”.

And in true Twitter/social media style, the whole thing was soon hijacked by spam – one message had this message: “#Syria if you like slutty girls you will LOVE this!”  At the height of a potentially crucial moment in the course of an entire nation that had endured intense pain and suffering, then, the porn sites still were at work.  So were those offering energy drinks.  Then there were the humorists.  One persistent message (following the recent “hologram” story) had Tupac Shakur alive and well in Syria, and about to appear on Good Morning Syria.  Another had the chef failing to administer the poison allegedly used on the top brass, so a real patriot then ate them himself!

Beyond that nonsense, though, my principal thought was that all this was an immediate reaction with little or no analysis.  What came through was hope for change, and that the apparent assassinations were the beginning of the end.

One or two commentators, however, picked up that if this anything at all it was the end of the beginning, because who knew what would happen next?  For some time the FSA has not been held in universally high regard, and was operating so freely only because the Syrian “opposition” itself was hopelessly divided.  In short, there was no obvious replacement group if this, indeed, turned out to be the end of the Assad regime.

It was for that reason, perhaps, that some of the messages were vitriolic.  “Assad will soon hang on a tree with his whole family”, read one message.  “Hope your soul is undergoing further torture” was another, directed at the allegedly departed Assef Shawkat.  These sorts of messages conveyed both a sense of vengeance and a fear: vengeance for what had occurred to date, and a fear of what might be about to come.  Some still thought this most likely a regime stunt to be followed by further retributions.  Others were genuinely worried about what would happen if Assad did go.  Still others thought it a media conspiracy that would eventually fall flat.

What that all indicated, too, is the uncertainty of any Syrian future after Assad.  The levels of hatred are high.  The political environment is fluid, to say the very least.  The immediate neighbours are unreliable, at best, and some reports already have the Americans arming rebels.  After the unfolding of events in Iraq, it can only be hoped the Americans have asked better questions about these “freedom fighters” than they did on the Iraqi ones.

A day later the whole thing had subsided: the mainstream press contained few if any references to the affair, and even Al Jazeera on its Syria blog was suggesting the affair was a false alarm.  Several social media participants closed off by suggesting this was not Twitter’s finest hour.

Verification of information is at the heart of this.  If anything has emerged from the Middle East developments of the past couple of years, it is that the social media source is rapid and informative but not necessarily reliable.  At first that was seen as justification for the mainstream press and media, but then the Murdoch hacking story hit the headlines and suddenly that source did not seem too reliable either.  That has enormous implications for anyone trying to make some sense of what is going on because, perhaps more than at any other time, gaining credible information is a huge challenge concerning Syria currently, and in turn that is a challenge for policy making.

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