THE WORLDPOST
04/17/2014 07:27 am ET Updated Apr 17, 2014

Syrian Activists Fighting -- And Failing -- To Spark Action

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

BEIRUT -- When the Syrian civil war began more than three years ago, Mariam Hamou took to Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about the brutality of the Syrian government and encourage Western governments to halt the violence. From her home in London, Ontario, she is still pursuing the same mission today, and no closer to achieving it.

Hamou and her Toronto-based colleague, Bayan Khatib, work for the media office of the Syrian National Coalition, the official governing body of the Syrian opposition. They plan media campaigns, arrange speaking tours by dissident Syrians to Islamic community centers and college campuses in North America, post -- and argue -- on Facebook and Twitter, doing anything that helps spread news from the war to a wider audience.

With few journalists or outsiders able to cover the war from inside Syria, activists have become a key source of information. Their efforts -- alongside a network of Syrians who deliver a steady flow of videos and images of suffering from the battlefield -- have succeeded in shaping public opinion on the conflict. But after more than three years, Hamou and other activists around the world aiming to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad are frustrated with their lack of a winning strategy. Western governments -- and their citizens -- have failed to intervene with forceful action. And no one, least of all the activists themselves, seems to know how to change that.

"I can't even tell you what the answer is," said Hamou during a phone interview from Ontario, the exasperation evident in her voice. "I have no idea."

While not all activists support military intervention, foreign governments have largely focused on whether or not to dedicate supplies and manpower to Syria. The Syrian National Coalition works with the Free Syrian Army, a moderate, Western-supported rebel group, and has called for increased foreign weapons shipments, including anti-aircraft missiles. The coalition was also a strong backer of proposed airstrikes against the Assad government following its use of chemical weapons last August. With its media campaigns, it aims to encourage civilians around the world to put pressure on their governments to get involved in the war.

Marc Lynch, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, analyzed three years of polls on Syria for The Washington Post last month. While Lynch found that Americans are both reasonably well informed about the Syrian civil war and generally anti-Assad, that knowledge has never made intervention in Syria a popular option. Polls in other Western countries show even less support for a stronger Syria policy.

The activists see this in their own work. When the Syrian military recently stepped up its campaign of "barrel bombs" -- oil barrels that are filled with explosives and dropped from helicopters -- in the city of Aleppo, activists urged people to post on social media using the #SaveAleppo hashtag to spread the word about the violence. Similar awareness campaigns have followed almost every key moment along the way, from last year's chemical weapons attacks to battles against hardline Islamist militias. Yet for the millions of people who use hashtags or view activist videos, few have campaigned for their own governments to intervene.

Hamou and Khatib said that they have started to shift tactics in response to this gap, moving from simply publicizing the horrors of the war to combating perceptions that Syrian rebels are terrorists and other views that may make people reluctant to support intervention.

"Our strategy has changed from trying to get the story out to trying to get the right story out," Khatib said.

Hamou has focused on softening the gory images that activists in Syria often transmit to the outside world, showing bombing victims or starving children. "In North America, people don't want to see blood and war and guts. As soon as they see that, they tune out," she said.

But for all of their adjustments, Khatib and other activists feel their pleas have failed to make a serious dent in public opinion. "I don't know how to get people from A to B," Khatib said.

Many activists said that Assad's family has high-powered public relations firms at its disposal to spread its message. In contrast, Syrian activists are largely volunteers who wedge their advocacy work into their free time, often to the detriment of family life. The length of the conflict and the lack of public response has thinned out the ranks of activists, according to Hamou.

"They're dropping like flies," she said. "They can't do it anymore. Their families are suffering, they put their school on hold, they're falling apart. It's just tough."

And within Syria itself, many activists have been chased out of the country by rising violence and the regime's recent military gains in the strategic border region near Lebanon. Susan Ahmad, an activist from the Damascus suburbs, fled Syria earlier this month due to increasing danger. Speaking via Skype from one of the Gulf states -- she declined to name which one because of safety concerns -- Ahmad said that many activists are under threat and unsure what they can do to help.

"Doing the right thing is clear, you know? So how can we do more to convince those politicians to take [sic] the right decision?" she asked. "People here are frustrated, they feel that they were let down by the whole world."

Some activists who are not aligned with the interventionist camp said that relying on outside help, especially military assistance, is a problem in itself. Mohja Kahf, a member of the activist group the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, said that the Syrian National Coalition should work more closely with the grassroots civil resistance. She suggested shining a spotlight on local councils that are working to provide basic services (like schooling and water) in rebel-held areas where local governments disbanded due to the war.

"People say, 'Who are the good guys?' Those are the good guys. The local councils, the civilian local councils," Kahf said. With the regime holding the upper hand on the battlefield, she said, those who say that force is needed to save the revolution have already lost the argument. "They're being proven wrong, because this is a military loss," she said.

But the focus of the war remains firmly on the battlefield, where outsiders tend to believe intervention will lead to an ongoing battle, much like the war in Iraq. Lynch, the professor at George Washington University, argued in his piece that one of the key problems in boosting support for intervention in Syria is Americans' fear of being drawn into another Middle Eastern war. Even if an intervention starts without boots on the ground, they believe, the United States is still likely to be dragged further into the war than it intended.

"As long as Americans understand standing with Syria as getting involved in another Iraq, hearts are unlikely to soften no matter how horrible the situation," he wrote. "Changing that equation of helping Syria with military intervention might help, perhaps with efforts such as the congressional resolution pushing for a robust humanitarian strategy."

Khatib, the Toronto-based activist, acknowledged that it's been difficult to find alternative strategies for ordinary Americans or Europeans to support. "This is the main problem, that there is no 'other thing' that is clear, that everyone agrees on or is working towards," she said.

But even alternatives may be pointless endeavors, according to Hadi Bahra, the head of the opposition's delegation to the stalled Geneva peace talks. Efforts to expand humanitarian aid to Syrians, he argued, will fail without the military power to back them up.

"Anything without teeth, the regime will not care about," Bahra said.

Clarification: Language in this article has been amended to reflect that the Syrian Nonviolence Movement does not have an official position of opposing military intervention, and to clarify Mohja Kahf's position on the Syrian National Coalition's efforts.

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