The YouTube war

The flood of video images emerging from the besieged city of Homs and other rebellious towns in Syria have shocked the world with their depictions of President Bashar Assad's bloody crackdown on innocent civilians.

The images, nearly all of them taken with hand-held cellphone cameras, were not made by professional journalists (most of whom have been barred from entering the country) but by ordinary Syrians caught up in the terrifying chaos of war.

We rarely witness a conflict at such close range, or so intimately from the viewpoint of the participants, and perhaps for that very reason the fuzzy, slightly off-kilter immediacy of these images makes the suffering and death they record all the more gripping.

Cellphones have allowed amateur citizen-journalists to perform the news-gathering functions that once could only be carried out by large professional news organizations, and the Internet has allowed them to have their reporting presented to a global audience. The new influence wielded by the brave young people who have made it their mission to expose their government's crimes is one of the most remarkable developments to come out of Syria's uprising, and in terms of the outcome of the conflict it could be a game-changer.

This week, the United Nations issued a report condemning the Assad regime's massacre of its own people as a war crime for which he and his associates must be held accountable. But the international community appears at a loss for what to do next. Russia and China have blocked resolutions in the Security Council that might eventually lead to military intervention, as in Libya, and their support appears to have further emboldened Mr. Assad to crush his opponents. Watching from thousands of miles away as tanks pulverize apartment buildings and flatten homes, we can only shudder at the victims' helplessness, outrage, fear and despair.

Yet for all their lack of technical polish, the images from Homs may be the most powerful weapons in the Syrian opposition's arsenal. Uploaded via satellite phone to the Internet and collated by tech-savvy sympathizers abroad, the images fill whole pages on Web sites like YouTube and Twitter, where they are seen by millions around the world. On the web, Syria's opposition reconstitutes itself as a defiant virtual presence that demands a response because it is impossible to ignore. As long as the horrific images streaming out of Homs continue, a reluctant world will feel compelled, in some way, to act.

The Syrian authorities surely know this, which is why they have tried to cut off independent reporting about what is happening in Homs and elsewhere in the country. The peculiar power of images to move people to take sides and act is the reason governments throughout history have sought to control, censor or suppress them. Mr. Assad must realize that the pictures of what his soldiers are doing in Homs are a perpetual provocation and rebuke to his tyranny.

Vietnam was the first war to be widely covered on TV, and its images of killing and dying prompted protests whose effects on the country were transformative. The Assad regime is threatened by a similar tidal wave of imagery in a wholly new medium, and history suggests it is unlikely to survive it. Just as Vietnam became the first "television war," the outcome of the rebellion in Syria may cause it to be remembered as the first YouTube conflict.

Glenn McNatt

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