Millions of Syrians are using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Skype to disseminate and discuss the conflict. Each week Syria Deeply monitors the online conversation in English and Arabic, pulling out the highlights in a feature called the Social Media Buzz.
Syrians have experienced practically every imaginable form of killing over the past two years. But last week Aleppo was introduced to a new type of massacre. At least 80 men, most between the ages of 20 and 40, were executed and dumped en masse in the Qweik River on Jan. 29, demonstrating that war still has some unrevealed horrors.
Corpses bobbed in the river until they were retrieved, in the Bustan Al Qasr neighborhood in the rebel-controlled section of Aleppo. Activists and fighters dragged the dead men from the water and placed them on the river bank, a scene captured in a widely shared photo (right).
Graphic videos of what became known as the “River Massacre” were quickly disseminated across social media networks. Foreign journalists and photographers were able to access the site and confirm the activists’ reports.
But well before the dead were identified and buried, the battle of narratives began. Government media and its allied outlets blamed Jabhat Al Nusra, the U.S.-designated terrorist group that fights against the Assad regime, for executing the men. Hussein Murtada, the Syria correspondent for the Iranian TV station Al Alam, said in a Facebook post that the men were wearing military uniforms, and that the area they were found has been held by armed groups for the past six months. The image he linked to, however, was that of a teenager in civilian clothes.
After families in Bustan Al Qasr and surrounding areas began identifying the bodies of their sons and relatives (video below) it became clear that most of the men had been captured after venturing to government-controlled areas of Aleppo. The regime’s defenders questioned whether the stagnant Qweik River was strong enough to drag so many bodies. Rebel fighters refuted that point a day later with a video showing a flowing river less than a mile away from Bustan Al Qasr. Yet, it still isn’t clear who is responsible for the deaths.
One aspect of the massacres in Syria that rarely makes the headlines is the sectarian affiliation of the victims, a point worth considering as religious tensions have escalated over the past two years (chiefly between Sunnis and Alawites). Social media has long provided an outlet for Sunnis to air their grievances. Lately, even some secular activists (who are loath to bring up sectarian divisions) have started to highlight the issue.
Sectarian rhetoric has also been rising in diplomatic circles. Last week Russia spoke out against the notion of Sunnis taking power in Syria, despite their majority status. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told the German newspaper Handelsblatt: “Can we imagine what will happen if the Sunnis come to power? I think they will start hanging the Alawites, sad though it may sound. This cannot be allowed to happen.”
Sharp reactions to Medvedev’s comments splashed across Twitter and Facebook. One of the most prominent Arab commentators on Syria, Al Jazeera TV host Faisal al Qassem, posted the following comment:
Amid the relentless violence engulfing Syria today, Syrians took time to commemorate the deaths of over 20,000 citizens who were killed when Hafez Al Assad, the current president’s father, ordered the military to crush the armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama 31 years ago in Feb. 1982. It served as fodder for revolutionary zeal, as Syrians switched their profile pictures to call for belated justice for Hama. Others tried to take a similar message viral.