From Chris Zambelis, Combating Terrorism Center:  Every serious political or militant actor with a stake in what is happening in Syria has a presence on social media through some combination of officially hosted websites and blogs, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Flickr, online chat room forums, Short Message Service (SMS) platforms, and other venues. The leading political opposition factions, namely the Syrian National Council (SNC), National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), and the numerous Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCCs), all operate a network of professionally-designed and maintained websites and social media platforms to broadcast information. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a body closely tied to the SNC, is also widely active on social media. The SOHR publicizes alleged casualty counts and human rights abuses it blames on the Ba`athist regime’s security services and irregular paramilitary forces.

Led by the FSA and the numerous insurgent groups that claim to be fighting under its umbrella, the violent strain of the Syrian opposition is also well represented on social media. The Omawi News Live network and Ugarit News are two of the most prominent among a host of outlets that serve as quasi-official information platforms broadcasting a wide range of material on behalf of the Syrian opposition on social media. Both networks air amateur video footage of alleged attacks by Syrian security forces and insurgent operations, reports documenting purported defections of members of the Syrian military, alleged evidence of human rights abuses and atrocities perpetrated by the Ba`athist regime, and other items that cast Damascus in a negative light. The growing radical Islamist current within the Syrian opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist movements that appear to be motivated by al-Qa`ida’s style of radicalism are also active on social media. Jabhat al-Nusra announced its formation and claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks across Syria through official declarations and video features produced by its al-Manara al-Bayda Foundation for Media Production and issued on radical Islamist websites and chat room forums. Jabhat al-Nusra has since carved out its own place on social media through the creation of a dedicated website and affiliated online outlets.

The importance of winning the information war on social media has not been lost to the Ba`athist regime and its supporters. Official Syrian media and information outlets such as the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) are active online. The creation of the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) and a host of associated outlets, however, reflects a greater effort by the Ba`athist regime to combat the opposition’s struggle to monopolize the information war. In addition to encouraging supporters of the Ba`athist regime to engage in online activism, the SEA is also involved in cyber warfare and hacking operations. The SEA has produced a recruitment video in Arabic and English that outlines its mission to defend Syria and is reminiscent of the videos issued by the hacktivist group Anonymous in its presentation and tone. In doing so, the SEA relies on a nationalistic discourse that emphasizes Syrian unity and loyalty among Syrians to their country. Social media platforms associated with the Ba`athist regime reflect the narrative presented by Damascus: Syria portrays the crisis as an effort by its primary enemies—the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel—and their regional allies to undermine and destroy Syria by way of proxy war and encouraging sectarianism, violent insurrection, and radical Islamist militancy. A range of social media outlets operated by supporters of the Ba`athist regime inside Syria and abroad also helps sustain this effort to counter the opposition. . . .

Effective messaging allows for the contesting parties in Syria to present unadulterated versions of their respective narratives and positions to supporters, opponents, and neutral parties alike in Syria and beyond. A successful information campaign also helps sway target foreign audiences that may have little or no stake in what is happening in Syria to choose sides. In this context, the competing factions in Syria are waging a virtual campaign to win over international public opinion. In today’s information climate, an item posted to YouTube or Twitter by individual users or activists can easily compete with and often may supersede a breaking dispatch from reputable international media conglomerates in terms of the number of consumers it reaches in the public domain. Raw reports, such as amateur video footage and photography of events such as a public protest organized by opposition activists or a funeral procession for a Syrian who is believed to have perished at the hands of the Syrian security forces, make an impact on social media in such a way that is impossible to emulate through traditional print or second-hand news reportage. Amateur video footage of the funeral of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, a 13-year-old boy who was allegedly tortured and killed by Syrian security forces after being detained in a protest in his native Dera`a, spawned a wave of outrage in Syria and around the world that helped embolden the already simmering opposition against the Ba`athist regime.  

At this juncture, it is impossible to determine the precise effect social media is having on shaping the course of developments in Syria. It is clear, however, that the virtual arena has emerged as a crucial battlefield for the warring factions, political and violent, operating on Syrian soil and outside of its borders. At the very least, the sheer volume of social media platforms operating independently and in unison by all sides suggests an interest to secure both tactical and strategic gains through victories in the virtual battlefield.

Chris Zambelis is an analyst and researcher specializing in Middle East affairs with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, D.C. area. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.  (graphic: Infowar Monitor)  (via @abuaardvark)