More than 30,000 people have been killed in a conflict sparked 19 months ago when the military arrested 15 teenagers writing graffiti – “The people want the downfall of the regime” – that revealed an unspoken truth. Since then, peaceful protests have largely given way to a civil war that’s also spilling over Syria’s borders. Russia and the United States can’t agree on what to do, so little is done from the outside.
That leaves either more violence to resolve the conflict or something else. What might that something else be?
Perhaps it is the parallel war being waged by the opposition on YouTube to convince the remaining Syrians who support Bashar al-Assad that the regime now survives only on a thin tissue of lies.
One of the more popular chants during demonstrations has been “Syrian media is a liar!” To challenge the state’s censorship and its massive propaganda machine, the opposition has smartly used the Internet, relying on satellite connections to upload videos on YouTube. Many Syrians rely heavily on their satellite dishes to watch these daily depictions of what the regime actually does.
The effect is powerful. A string of myths has been knocked down, starting with Mr. Assad’s superficial attempt at political reform last year. Also gone is the regime’s pretense of widespread support in the Arab and Muslim world.
The videos have shattered Assad’s claim that he represents all of Syria’s diverse people by showing how much he now relies on support from his minority Alawite community. The current videos are countering the regime’s claim that the pro-democracy opposition is run by Islamic terrorists.
Assad is losing this war over the truth as more Syrians wake up to the unreality of the regime’s lies. It is forcing him to use state media to build up the Army as a unifying icon rather than himself. TV programs depict soldiers as brave and magnanimous toward the people. Some clips show crowds yelling, “God save the Army!”
Meanwhile, the foot soldiers themselves, who are mainly from the Sunni majority, are ordered not to watch the Internet. And with the opposition able to reveal Army massacres of innocent women and children, as well as whole villages, the military itself is losing credibility.
The Internet’s ability to democratize information could be the way to bring political democracy to Syria. Its power resides in allowing the masses to sift fact from fiction, which also helps lift their fears. Syrians can make better choices to live the truth of their broader community. The old lies spun by Assad are seen as powerless.
Many ruthless regimes have collapsed without a shot when the truth pours into a country. East Germans, for example, rose up against their communist rulers after years of being able to watch West German television beamed across the border. During a 1986 revolt in the Philippines, a Christian radio station countered the regime’s lies about the extent of its popular support.
Outside Syria, the United States and other nations are providing communication technology and training to help the opposition spread the videos. With few foreign journalists in Syria, the rest of the world also relies on these visual reports.
The more that Assad tries new ways to claim that he has staying power, the easier it becomes for the opposition to win the YouTube war. With enough massive noncooperation from Syrians, the regime will be cornered, perhaps creating more violence for a while, but eventually it will collapse.
Democracy itself is humanity’s best means of bringing out truths to run society. In Syria, hollowing out the lies is the first step toward creating new representations of truth. With that victory, the YouTube revolution can lead to democratic representation for all Syrians.