Call it the Social Media War.
As the White House pushes for retaliatory strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, some of the administration’s key evidence that chemical weapons were used on civilians are the thousands of photos and videos that the rebels uploaded detailing the attack.
The powerful images showed the instant horror — victims choking, retching and in death throes — and the aftermath of children’s bodies, covered in white shrouds with just their faces showing, lined shoulder to shoulder in the streets.
“With our own eyes we have seen the thousands of reports from 11 separate sites in the Damascus suburbs. All of them show and report victims with breathing difficulties, people twitching, with spasms, coughing, rapid heartbeats, foaming at the mouth, unconsciousness and death,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told the country in a speech Friday laying out the U.S. case for military action.
Images of suffering overseas have long been used to help foment a fervor for action, such as a famine in Africa or the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But in Syria, the images were injected real time into a heated debate and served as key proof of an atrocity.
Although the U.S. has traditional intelligence that the Syrian regime has chemical weapons and that it fired rockets into the suburbs at the time in question, the images provide means, motive and opportunity.
The key question when it comes to whether President Obama’s “red line” was crossed, however, is whether chemical weapons were actually used. For that, the U.S. is basing a tremendous amount of its conclusions on images from social media sources and what Americans saw on their computers and mobile phones.
Indeed, the official U.S. government four-page public assessment of the attack refers to the social media evidence. Senior administration officials briefing reporters Friday referred to social media evidence three times — what they called “open-source information.”
“We need to stress that we are leveraging heavily both open social media as well as [nongovernmental organizations] and medical reporting,” one official said at the briefing.
Trying to bolster the case beyond social media, Mr. Kerry said Sunday that the U.S. obtained samples of hair from victims that he said showed traces sarin gas.
The Syrian regime has denied a chemical weapons attack and has suggested that the rebels may have used the toxins to draw the U.S. into the fight. Mr. Obama declared last year that chemical weapons use by the regime would cross a “red line” that would result in an American retaliation.
Chris Zambelis, a senior analyst specializing in the Middle East for Helios Global Inc., said there has not been a precedent in which social media — essentially citizen journalists, shooting and uploading what they are seeing — has been at the crux of a major foreign policy decision.
He cautioned against placing too much stock in the videos and photos because it could be a false-flag attack.
“I think it is one of those things where people are now taking stock of what happened,” Mr. Zambelis said.