Mixed Reaction Swarms Social Media In Syria

Host Jacki Lyden speaks with Liz Sly of The Washington Post Beirut bureau about the social media reaction from Syrians to Obama's announcement Saturday that he would seek approval from Congress before taking military action.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

After weeks of mounting tensions over Syria, President Obama halted the drive toward a military strike, saying he wants Congress to debate the option. So the issue certainly isn't going away. This morning, Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that the Syrian government did use chemical weapons on civilians, as he said on "Fox News Sunday."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Hair and blood samples that have come to us from east Damascus, from individuals who were engaged as first responders in east Damascus, I can report to you today they have tested positive for signatures of sarin.

LYDEN: Saudi Arabia today said that it will back a U.S. strike against the Assad regime, but that strike, which seemed so imminent on Friday, is on hold. The president said yesterday that the timing of an attack doesn't diminish its efficacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now.

LYDEN: Or longer. To Syrian civilians living under the threat of chemical and artillery attacks, next week or one month from now could mean thousands more dead.

LIZ SLY: Yesterday's statements came as a big shock to them and a big disappointment.

LYDEN: That's Liz Sly, the Beirut bureau chief for The Washington Post. I asked her what she's been hearing from Syrian opposition and ordinary people.

SLY: I had spoken to some people who were very much looking forward to having what they hoped would be action that would push this towards a faster conclusion, that would help end the war. They were quite crushed by this decision.

LYDEN: Yeah. What about the Syrian government? What are they saying?

SLY: The Syrian government, of course, is absolutely delighted. They're hailing it as a defeat for America. President Assad has been doing not so badly on the battlefield for quite a long time. He's been victorious diplomatically. His backers, Russia and Iran, have given him a lot more than the opposition's allies have given them in terms of money and material and things like that.

LYDEN: What about the reaction, Liz, from Islamic groups fighting inside? There are so many - al-Nusra being one of them. Have you seen any kind of substantial verifiable reaction from these types of groups?

SLY: I've spoken to a lot of people on the ground who say that the jihadi groups have actually been fleeing their headquarters because they're actually convinced that America's real intention is to go after them.

LYDEN: It's so difficult right now, so dangerous to get in there. Is there a fear that the Internet could drop out because social media has been such an important way of getting news out?

SLY: Well, yes. But Assad has from time to time cut off the Internet. We've had several outages earlier this year. So I think it wouldn't be unusual if a strike actually happened, for him to turn off the Internet. But at the same time, he has quite a large constituency of his own, which also uses social media to put out its message. So it's not entirely in his interest to cut out social media.

LYDEN: Liz, are Syrians you've been in touch with worried about the threat of another chemical weapons attack or some other kind of lethal retaliation now that the U.N. inspectors have left and the U.S. is deciding when and if to strike?

SLY: Syrians are very afraid of another chemical attack. There's something psychological about a chemical attack that makes them uniquely afraid. But you also have to remember you've got like three or 4,000 people dying a month there. There are ballistic missiles, huge missiles that ravage a whole block at a time. And people are really scared of those as well. And to ask questions about what Syrians are afraid of right now, it's - that's really quite a big question because they're actually quite afraid of a lot of things.

LYDEN: That's The Washington Post's Liz Sly. She's speaking to us from Beirut. Thank you so much, Liz.

SLY: Thank you.

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