BEIRUT — The video from Kafranbel, a rebel-held village in northern Syria, has been sent by email to members of the U.S. Congress and posted repeatedly on their websites — often in long strings of comments about Syria that have flooded unrelated posts about health care or the openings of new constituent offices.
Quoting Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Jr., the video shows village residents who have lost family members in President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on the Syrian uprising as they plead for U.S. military strikes on their own country.
“You have to say yes!” one little boy shouts. A young girl adds, “You should feel ashamed, because you can save our lives but you never want to try.”
On the other side, equally passionate messages are bombarding the offices of U.S. lawmakers from Syrians and Syrian-Americans who support Assad’s government — or simply oppose the armed uprising. They use anti-war slogans and symbols and stress the growing influence of al-Qaida-linked militants among the rebels.
“You shouldn’t be standing against terrorism in Afghanistan and Mali, and when it comes to Syria, supporting it,” said Johnny Achi, a Syrian-American electronic engineer who has lived for decades in Los Angeles. He is visiting Damascus as he helps run a Facebook-based campaign to mobilize Syrian-Americans to lobby their representatives against military intervention.
As Congress prepares to debate whether to endorse President Barack Obama’s proposed strike on the Assad government, administration figures have spread out to press their case, including Secretary of State John Kerry, who on Sunday made an effort to line up Arab support for intervention.
Simultaneously, on a more grass-roots level, the publicity war among Syrians to get their own messages out about the issue is also reaching a crescendo — and is just as assiduously focused on Capitol Hill and the American public.
Each side has increased efforts to connect with Americans on what it sees as common values, with the opposition stressing the fight for political rights in the face of a violent state crackdown and Assad’s supporters stressing the secularism of his government.
The Syrian government is pushing hard, too. Parliament members have sent letters to their U.S. counterparts in Congress, and Assad used a television interview with Charlie Rose to assert that his government was not behind the chemical attacks that have ignited international outrage.
Grass-roots activists are building on expertise developed over the past two years as they used the Internet and social media to get information out about Syria. Informal armies of anti-government activists have long pumped out videos of dead children being pulled from rubble, of warplanes attacking neighborhoods, and of security forces torturing prisoners, even as government supporters have shared videos of rebels executing prisoners or desecrating shrines.
Yet with lawmakers primarily focused on their own voters, the limits of citizen media campaigns across oceans and front lines are being tested. The question for Syrians is whether their voices — those of the people most directly affected — will be heard.
Achi’s group takes credit for helping change the minds of some fence-sitters, like Rep. Michael G. Grimm, R-N.Y., who recently withdrew his support from Obama’s plan.
But others are not sure. K. Ibrahim, 33, fled Syria after being detained twice for anti-Assad activism and now runs a social media campaign to challenge the government’s claim that its opponents are primarily Islamist extremists. Yet she said she doubted her work would affect U.S. decision-makers.
“But for us, what can we do?” said Ibrahim, who asked to be identified by only part of her name for her safety. “We have to keep on shouting.”
Both sides work from a common assumption that most Americans paid little attention to Syria until the question of direct U.S. strikes came up. (One brief history of Syria on a pro-strike website begins, “There was once an evil dictator named Hafez al-Assad.”) They assume that American voters operate from a basic antipathy to Middle East interventions after the Iraq war, and from a fear of Islamist extremists.
“It’s perhaps the first time they heard about Syria or tried to find Syria on a map,” Ibrahim said. “And they’re like, ‘Qaida, Qaida, Qaida.’ Come on, you’re getting this out of context. You don’t have just a choice between Qaida and Assad.”
Ibrahim, a member of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, organized a response to a social media campaign by U.S. service members who were posting pictures of themselves with signs such as: “I didn’t join the Marine Corps to fight for al-Qaida in a Syrian civil war.”Continued...