From Harvard to Homs

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By Maren Engh
The United States recently pulled all their remaining diplomats from the embassy in Syria after violence continued throughout the country.  While safety is, and should remain, the number one concern for the United States personnel in Syria, what will the closing of the embassy mean for the valuable relationships Ambassador Ford and his staff made with the Syrian opposition? The State Department’s spokesperson for Near Eastern Affairs, Aaron Snipe, said in a “U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East” speech a few weeks ago that Ambassador Ford would continue to manage his relationships with the Syrians through social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Who thought ten years ago that the United States government would communicate with other countries through social media when there are no other forms of communication available?
Social media has been an integral part of organizing the masses during the Arab Spring, as people created Facebook events and groups as well as Twitter accounts urging people to stand up for their freedoms.  It is almost fitting that the US government is following this trend and engaging in social media to continue to build upon the relationships the US diplomatic efforts in Syria had built.  Since revolutions began last winter, social media has gained legitimacy as a real, effective tool for things such as organizing protests in Tahrir Square and the like.  Just the other day, Robert Ford uploaded satellite images on the embassy’s Facebook page showing the extent of the attacks of the government on civilians in Homs.  This served to show the public direct evidence of the atrocities occurring in a less official manner, professionals and young people alike.

From the dormitory halls of Harvard University as a picture sharing tool, Facebook has become a instrument that is now helping to topple regimes and bring U.S. diplomatic efforts beyond hostile borders.  What started as a mechanism for youth to garner support for the mass protests in Egypt has become a vital tool for government officials to communicate with the opposition in Syria as it is one of the few possible methods of contact at this time, connecting a country suffering from serious political and civil violence to the United States who is trying to help in the most diplomatic ways.

On Friday, Ford used Facebook to condemn the violence in Syria and pressure Assad to step down.  He also spoke out against the government’s use of “heavy weaponry” against innocent civilians and made the public aware that he wants to expose the truth behind the regime’s brutal violence.  Using Facebook allowed Ambassador Ford to speak openly in a “blog-like” setting, expressing his opinions in a very informal manner, while still reaching thousands of people.

The use of social media has become a critical part of mobilizing people in the Arab Spring as well as the surrounding crises that are occurring throughout the Middle East.  Facebook and Twitter have provided an informal opportunity for political leaders and civilians alike to communicate with the world the atrocities that are occurring.  It is also helping current State Department leaders maintain important relationships with the opposition.  It will be quite interesting to see how the technology we use every day to communicate with friends and family will continue to help maintain diplomatic relationships and spread awareness about the violence in countries like Syria in the future.  While many have been critical of the effect of Facebook and Twitter on the account of less social interaction replaced by cyber ones, it is this very same capability that allows for efforts to cross boundaries where boots cannot go.  In the globalized world we live in, it seems almost impossible to stop the age of information.
Maren Engh is an associate analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs

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