Many Syrians have been tethered to Facebook for almost two years to check on the state of the conflict in their country, scouring through feeds for the latest images and videos of protests and war crimes. But a new kind of message was tucked into these streams over the past two weeks which added a novel function for the platform: diplomacy.
Moaz Al Khatib, the president of the National Coalition (NC), the largest opposition umbrella group in Syria, surprised many observers and even coalition members when he posted on his Facebook page a proposal to sit with representatives from the Assad regime. The preconditions for such talks were the release of 160,000 prisoners held by the government and the renewal of passports for Syrians in exile.
This initiative gave some potency to the exiled opponents of the Assad regime who have struggled to build an international consensus to end the conflict in Syria due to the sharp division in the U.N. Security Council. Almost two months had passed since more than 100 countries recognized the NC as the legitimate representative of Syrians, but the coalition wasn’t able to attract the funds needed to govern rebel controlled territories or provide advanced weapons to fighters.
As the prospect of a longer and more destructive war set in, Al Khatib used his social media platform to directly address Syrians who have grown weary of the conflict, circumventing the nascent groupings in the coalition that might have debated the proposal for weeks or months. Many activists and rebels disagreed with Al Khatib’s vision, and debates were held inside Syria to discuss the issue (video below), but eventually an uneasy consensus was reached to allow the moderate Sunni cleric to proceed.
Most of the men from Idlib in the video above welcomed the initiative and hoped it would end the violence. One man said that “fighting and negotiating is the best path,” while another noted that dialogue requires two parties who could either be friends or enemies, and that there was no shame in recognizing the power of enemies and negotiating with them.
It isn’t clear how Al Khatib will proceed after the Assad regime refused to release female detainees, part of the truncated conditions that Al Khatib requested as a sign of good will. Al Khatib said he is willing to hold talks with government representatives in Northern Syria, which is largely held by rebels. Only one thing seems certain: Al Khatib will probably use Facebook to update Syrians and foreign governments on his progress.
(Some of the talking points that Al Khatib said he delivered to global leaders at an international summit in Munich).
A new protest video from Binnish, a small town in Idlib, is raising concerns about the popular use of extremist rhetoric by some opponents of the Assad regime. A child in the clip chants a song in praise of Osama Bin Laden and threatens Alawites and Shiites in a nearby village with slaughter, adding local flair to a song first recited by foreign fighters in the same town in October.
Binnish wasn’t always seen as the hub of extremism. Anthony Shadid, the award winning journalist who died in Syria last February, visited Binnish on his final assignment and said in a YouTube clip uploaded by activists that the town, at the time, “offers to the rest of Syria a model for the revolution as well as a model of what will happen after the fall of the regime.” More than 50,000 Syrians have been killed since then, and Binnish, like other towns in Idlib, has been shelled extensively over the past year.
Even more prominent than the video of children in Binnish hurling sectarian hate speech, the hot video of the week (below) featured a forgotten aspect of the conflict: the long forgotten military attacks on peaceful protests. This clip, which has been viewed more than 65,000 times in five days, is a two-minute film of a peaceful protest in the Bustan Al Qasr neighborhood that was hit by mortar fire on Nov. 16. Right before the blast roughly 90 seconds in, the camera focuses on a young girl who has been leading protests there for months, as she sings: “We crave freedom, crave it.”