Analyse This: As Syria heads to the US, Damascus shows its true Face(book)

As Syria heads to Annapolis, it shows its true Face(book).

Syria Facebook 224.88 (photo credit: Illustration by Ricky Ben-David)
Syria Facebook 224.88
(photo credit: Illustration by Ricky Ben-David)
Although it might be interesting to hear what "Syria-Girl Alaa" or "Syrian Guy" or "Syrian Damasine" have to say about the decision of their president, Bashar Assad, to send a delegation to the Annapolis conference, it's too late for that. That's because last week, Assad's regime shut down access to Facebook, where they and other members of the global social-network Internet site were able to communicate with the outside world free of their state's pervasive censorship. I'm deliberately not listing any of the many registered Facebook members by their actual names, since Syrian officials have cited the site's capability to connect Israelis and Syrians directly as the main reason for the shutdown. But a check of several Syrian Facebook members shows that almost none list Israeli "friends" unless they have Arabic names. "Facebook helped further civil society in Syria and form civic groups outside government control; this is why it has been banned," Syrian rights advocate Dania al-Sharif told Reuters. A check of some of the more than 500-plus Facebook groups listed in connection with Syria sheds further light on the situation. It's unlikely that such groups as "Rugby in Syria," "Syria has the best schwarma" or "The most beautiful people come from Syria," are among those that so alarmed Assad's regime. And others - "God protects Syria," "Syria has the right to defend itself" and "Don't blame Syria for EVERYTHING that goes wrong in Lebanon" - not only sound like they have official approval, but perhaps were even set up by official sources. There are, though, plenty of other groups that do blame Syria for problems in Lebanon - including "Save the Lebanese detainees in Syria," "No Syria, no Bashar," and "Now that Syria is out of Lebanon, let's keep them out!" Of course, no Syrians are listed by name as belonging to these groups, or in others that object to Damascus's policies - or even in more benign-sounding groups, such as "The Peace Project Lebanon/Israel/Syria/Palestine." It is possible, though, to find many Syrians openly listed in groups with names such as "Don't block Facebook in Syria!" These are likely the many young freedom- and Internet-loving Syrians who have fled their country in recent years for elsewhere in the Arab world. According to an article in the Toronto Globe & Mail, Lebanon has ironically has become one of their most popular destinations; interviewed in a Beirut Starbucks, 23-year-old Ahed al-Hindi described how he was arrested in a Damascus café last year after he was found posting "political comments on the human rights situation" in Syria on a Web site, and fled the country right after his release from prison. Although the blocking of Facebook is but one element in a recent clampdown in Syria that includes far more serious actions - such as the arrests, and subsequent lengthy jail sentences, of several human-rights activists - it is a particularly ironic one, given that Bashar Assad was once chairman of the Syrian Computer Society. There was talk when he took power from his late father in 2000 that a new age of Internet freedom was in the offing in his country. Yet Syria remains the only Internet-connected nation in the region that provides no public local access to the Web. What's behind the Syrian crackdown? Surely a major reason is the worsening political crisis in Lebanon, in which Damascus is a major player - exerting its influence to prevent the appointment of any presidential successor who won't continue to follow ex-president Emile Lahoud's slavish pro-Syrian line; continuing to arm Hizbullah; and allegedly organizing the wave of assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians in recent years. Another factor is likely the increasing focus on Syria's ties and support for a radical Iranian regime coming under increasing pressure from the West to curtail its nuclear program, a situation that is alienating Assad even from most of the other Arab leaders. All this has come as Damascus finally decided over the weekend to participate in Annapolis. Whether that decision is simply a tactical move in a bid to put the fate of the Golan Heights back on the negotiating agenda; a ploy to distract international attention from Syria's manipulations in Lebanon; or the first faint sign of a policy change in Damascus to move away from Ahmadinejad's Iranian regime and find a place among the more moderate Muslim states, will only become clear long after Annapolis has concluded. And by that time, whether or not those of us here in Israel and elsewhere in the world have the opportunity to frankly discuss the situation on Facebook with "Syrian Girl-Alaa" or "Syrian Guy" will itself be a pretty good indication of which political direction Assad's Syria is truly heading. [email protected]