Celebrated Syrian democracy activist executed as support program ends



The Syrian government executed well-known internet activist Bassel Khartabil (left) in 2015, Khartabil’s wife and Amnesty International said on Tuesday, CNN reports.

His death is a reminder of the cruel trajectory of the Syrian revolt, which began peacefully with widespread anti-government demonstrations but rapidly mutated into raging war, The Washington Post adds.

The news of Khartabil’s murder has an added poignancy as it coincides with reports that the U.S. is ending its support for moderate, pro-democracy rebels at a time when the Syrian Democratic Forces are making major gains against ISIS in Raqqa.

Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute, said he was not surprised that the administration ended the program, which armed and trained thousands of Syrian rebels. (By comparison, a $500 million Pentagon program that envisioned training and equipping 15,000 Syrian rebels over three years, was canceled in 2015 after producing only a few dozen fighters), The New York Times reports.

“In many ways, I would put the blame on the Obama administration,” Mr. Lister said of the C.I.A. program. “They never gave it the necessary resources or space to determine the dynamics of the battlefield. They were drip-feeding opposition groups just enough to survive but never enough to become dominant actors.”

History and recent scholarship suggest the publicity surrounding this not-so-artful-deal will have potentially significant downstream effects, according to the University of Chicago’s Austin Carson and the University of Pittsburgh’s Michael Poznansky.

“At this stage, it’s hard to know which of three conjectures best reflects reality. Regardless, the publicity surrounding the decision constitutes an unforced error,” they write for War On The Rocks. “After all, covert action is usually terminated quietly and without fanfare. The Syria program has been given a loud and public death.”

Khartabil, a Syrian software developer and free speech activist, was executed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in October 2015, said Reporters Without Borders (RSF):

An open source culture advocate who tried to promote unrestricted online access to news and information in Syria, Khartabil had been held ever since military intelligence arrested him in Damascus on March 15, 2012 ­– almost certainly in connection with his activities….Khartabil founded the Aiki Lab in Damascus in 2010 with the aim of developing digital art practices and teaching collaborative technologies. He also participated in international projects such as Mozilla Firefox, the Arabic version of Wikipedia and the Syrian branch of Creative Commons.

He was responsible for the “New Palmyra” project, a website with a downloadable 3D version of the ancient city of Palmyra as it was before its destruction by Islamic State fighters. He was on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2012, and won the Index on Censorship Digital Freedom Award in 2013. Syria is ranked 177th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

We offer our condolences to the family of Bassel Khartabil, whose release we had repeatedly demanded,” RSF said. “After this news of yet another shocking crime, we reiterate our call to the UN Security council to refer crimes against journalists in Syria to the International Criminal Court.”

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