Virtualizing the Syrian Revolution

Gary Grappo   –  Gary Grappo is the former U.S. ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, Head of Mission of the Jerusalem-based Office of the Quartet Representative, The Honorable Tony Blair, and Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

June 19, 2014 – FIKRA Forum – The U.S. approach to undermining Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has been surprisingly constrained and unimaginative. Since President Barack Obama threatened to strike Syria last summer, military force hasn’t been seriously considered by any current or former administration official, member of Congress, or thoughtful critic of American policy toward Syria.

Still, the United States possesses one particularly effective weapon that it can deploy: advanced technology.

The U.S. government and others should begin to immediately create a virtual Syrian government-in-exile on the internet, knowing that aid that was once considered sufficient for bolstering moderate anti-Assad forces would now prove ineffective. Such a venture, by the so-called “Friends of Syria,” would undermine Assad’s legitimacy and political grip, especially if Syria becomes a failed state.

Working primarily with technology companies and in cooperation with supportive governments, a virtual Syrian government could draft a new constitution, conduct elections, organize a parliament, try officials for war crimes, and function as any other government. It would lack brick-and-mortar buildings, to be sure, but it would have nearly the same reach as and much greater domestic and international support than the one in Damascus.

The Syrian government-in-exile would pursue a strategy of engagement with the Syrian population in cyberspace. People would be able to interact with government officials in forums and via social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Imagine the possibilities if the Syrian government was able to communicate with Syrians via Facebook or if the president-in-exile appeared live on YouTube to deliver public remarks. Snapchat, a messaging application, might also be an especially effective tool since messages disappear from mobile devices and the server within seconds, so they cannot be tracked by the regime.As part of a comprehensive humanitarian assistance package, America and other nations should provide wireless capabilities to Syrians residing in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and even Iraq. That way, they can effectively participate in the workings of their government-in-exile. Similar actions might also be taken within Syria, although those are obviously more complicated. However, using already established contacts with the Supreme Military Council, Islamic Front, and the Southern Front, the United States could help facilitate wider dissemination of internet access within rebel-controlled Syria.

For this effort to work, the overall approach must be completely overt and transparent. Social networking services like Facebook and Twitter could not be expected to lend their support and expertise to any covert exercise. Moreover, complete transparency maximizes participation and inclusiveness, which are important tenets of the democratic process. This approach will show the Syrian regime the futility of opposing genuinely popular democracy.

Another critical challenge is digital security. Communicating with constituents and preserving the integrity of an online voting system would present unique and extraordinary challenges. Here again, however, the rapidly expanding expertise of companies such as Google in encryption technology could be applied so that the platform is safe from hacking or interference.

Such actions will not lead to an immediate change in circumstances in Syria. Nor will they solve the immense humanitarian crisis on the ground. But concerted and resolute action by allies of the Syrian opposition will weaken and ultimately defeat Assad and give the Syrian people new hope that their revolution continues and victory is attainable. The first step to achieving that goal could be digital.