Syria’s online army is simply playing into Assad’s hands

A few miles from the advancing tanks of President Bashar al-Assad’s army, a young Syrian pledged to leave the safety of a Turkish border town and make a perilous return to his homeland. This twentysomething dissident, his eyes blazing with courage, was preparing to join the struggle against an obdurate and pitiless dictator. And how was he planning to speed the regime’s downfall? The activist – I’ll call him Ahmed – told me that he would tweet, text, blog and Skype, to ensure that the outside world knew the terrible reality of Assad’s rule.

There was no doubting his bravery, nor his dedication. But if Ahmed does become another citizen journalist, a “networked individual” plugged into the full array of social media, will it really be the best way to loosen Assad’s grip on power?

Earlier, I had talked to fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the country’s nascent rebel movement. They were stuck in Turkey, on the wrong side of a border laced by minefields, patrolled by troops and menaced by snipers. The guerrillas were ready and willing to strike into Syria, but realistic enough to know that any raid would probably become a bloody failure. Even if it succeeded, these lightly armed fighters could only inflict a pinprick on Assad’s forces.

So does Syria’s uprising need more technologically savvy multimedia activists? Or – to be blunt – does it require more people inside the country blowing things up? In the end, which poses the greater threat to a repressive regime: its atrocities being instantly relayed across the world on Twitter, or a well-armed, tightly organised insurgency?

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