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Syrians discover new ‘power of their voice’

Videos help protesters unite against government

- - Tuesday, June 28, 2011

GUVECCI, Turkey — It's a familiar nightmare for Syrians.

In 1982, Syria's military employed a "scorched-earth" policy to quell protests in the northern town of Hama, killing 25,000 people.

But Syrian refugees now fleeing into Turkey say that although history appears to be repeating itself, the outcome will be different this time.

"We've lived through 40 years of dictatorship," said Mohammad, a young Syrian who fled to Turkey over the weekend. "We have no other choice but to continue [to fight]. We have to do this for the next generation."

The widespread participation of discontented Syrians in the uprising, which has lasted more than 100 days, is what makes it different.

"Syria has never had this kind of mass movement," said Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent Syrian exile and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington. "Syrians are now discovering the power of their voice and the power of numbers."

As with the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, social networking via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Skype is playing a key role in facilitating the daily protests.

Mohammad, who made his way with three other Syrians across the Belengoz Mountains into Guvecci, arrived with a USB flash drive that holds dozens of short videos he recorded of protests in his hometown of Lazkiye.

In one video, he keeps recording while running from a hail of bullets and advancing Syrian troops. In another, the lens focuses on a young Syrian, Mohammad's friend, who is lying in a pool of blood.

Mohammad has shared the videos with friends and relatives and said he is dedicated to continuing the fight for freedom from across the border.

"We weren't ready earlier. This couldn't haven't happened earlier," he said. "Now we have cellphones and can ring each other, and we know what has happened in other towns."

Sympathetic Turks have sneaked Turkish cellphone cards across the border to Syrians hiding in the woods. The Syrians then can use Turkish cellphone providers to send messages without being traced by the regime they are fleeing.

Through social media, "We have seen how modern Muslims live now," Mohammad said in reference to Turkey. "And that's how we want to live, too."

Activists say the use of these networks inside Syria has helped the protesters share information and coordinate on a national level.

"Social media doesn't just inform people; it gives them the opportunity to organize and to think together," said Malath Aumran, a representative of the Local Coordination Committee (LCC) of Syria, speaking from Beirut.

The LCC administers a Facebook page that is updated with reports of local demonstrations and casualties from across the country. It represents 15 local chapters within Syria, each of which coordinates local neighborhood committees formed by networks of friends — often young people.

Many of the LCC's Facebook updates are in the form of YouTube videos, shot by ordinary people on the streets using mobile phones and pocket digital cameras.

Although the authenticity of these clips is hard to verify, activists say they are vital in a country that has no free press and has banned foreign media. They inspire Syrians to join protests in other parts of the country as well as enrage them when they witness the force used against protesters.

"If you say that the Egyptian revolution is the 'Facebook revolution,' then the Syrian one is the 'YouTube revolution,' " said Mr. Ziadeh. "YouTube has played an important role in passing information within Syria and spreading it across the globe."

While the local organization of protests initially might have centered on the young, it is happening in response to grievances that stretch long into Syria's past, activists and analysts say.

"What is going on in Syria brings to mind all the atrocities of the regime committed throughout [the decades] ... because the massacres of the Syrian regime have been ongoing," said Walid Saffour, the London-based president of the Syrian Human Rights Committee. "These experiences and these memories exist in the consciousness and the memory of the Syrian people."

Activists say that 1,400 people have been killed in the three months since the uprising began and are unimpressed by President Bashar Assad's talk of reform in recent speeches.

In Washington on Tuesday, the State Department said that Syria's move to allow activists to meet to discuss political change was a positive step but that the government needed to do more to launch real reforms.

"The fact that opposition members were allowed to meet in Syria for the first time in decades, as I understand it, is progress and is something that is new and is important for the democratic process in Syria that we all want to see," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

"We think this is a move in the right direction, but there is far more to be done. The violence needs to end throughout Syria, and a broader public process needs to begin."

Some of Syria's leading intellectuals used Monday's meeting to call for sweeping political change, and the government announced that it would invite opposition figures to July 10 talks to set the framework for a dialogue promised by Mr. Assad.

While the power of a grass-roots uprising in Syria is compelling, analysts say, it is limited in terms of organization and maintaining momentum. But some see that leadership already is beginning to take shape in the local committees.

For now, with or without leadership, the Syrian people appear set to continue protesting.

"The country is split in two — either you're with Assad or you're not," said one Syrian who fled to Guvecci and asked not to be named.

"Those who are with Assad are doing it out of fear. Those who are against Assad have looked death in the face, and we won't give in until we have freedom. It's death or freedom."

c Ruby Russell in Berlin contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.