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U.S. Allies Give a Frosty Reception to Syrian Chemical Weapons Deal

BEIRUT, Lebanon — At the end of the press conference unveiling their deal over Syria's chemical weapons program, a smiling Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to exchange a joke before walking offstage. Some of America's allies in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad, however, weren't laughing.

Even as a Syrian official hailed the Sept. 14 plan as a "victory" for the Assad regime, the reaction from U.S. partners in the Middle East ranged from skepticism to outright hostility. Turkey, which has been at the forefront of the anti-Assad cause, said it welcomed the initiative -- but expressed doubts that the Syrian regime would comply with its terms. Officials in Ankara warned that the deal does nothing to resolve the Syrian crisis and said that more must be done to pressure Assad to relinquish power.

"The Syrian crisis is not only about use of chemical weapons -- up until now, more than 100,000 people have died, not because of the chemical weapons, but because of increasing and indiscriminate violence perpetrated by the regime," said a Turkish official. "This is the root problem in Syria. This is what constitutes a clear and present danger to the region and international security."

Kerry visits Paris on Monday, where he is meeting with leaders who supported a military strike on Syria: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. His goal will be to not only sell the initiative to U.S. allies, but also to hammer out the details of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria with the European powers. The Turkish message will be that, deal or no deal, Washington should keep the pressure on the Assad regime.

"There is kind of an emerging perception that now we have this agreement about the chemical weapons, everything is fine," said the Turkish official. "No, this is not the case.… The Assad regime should not think that they have been given a green light to continue with their conventional violence."

Syrian rebels, who have already ignored U.S. and European pleas to not publicly criticize the deal, also fear that it could represent a setback to their larger battle against the Assad regime. The Syrian opposition coalition criticized the plan for "embolden[ing] the regime to escalate its military offensive," and Free Syrian Army spokesman Qassem Saad Eddine said the agreement could "go to hell."

The reception by the Arab Gulf states has been equally frosty. Saudi Arabia was one of the most aggressive proponents of a U.S. intervention: Riyadh's ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, rushed back to D.C. from vacation last month to advocate for military strikes against the Syrian regime. Now, according to multiple analysts who follow Saudi Arabia closely, the kingdom fears that the United States is retreating from its promises to hold Assad accountable for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack.

The Gulf states consider the plan "an absolute waste of time," said Nawaf Obaid, a fellow at Harvard University Kennedy School's Belfer Center who serves as an advisor to Saudi diplomats. "This is the perfect 'save my ass plan' that Bashar needed, and the Russians gave it to him."

Obaid predicted that the U.S. leadership vacuum will cause Riyadh to deepen its involvement with the rebels. Obama's acquiescence to the plan, said Obaid, "really hit [his] credibility in the region as an indecisive and even potentially weak president."

Saudi King Abdullah has long had a unique interest in Syrian affairs. This is partly a matter of tribal ties: His mother was a member of the massive Shammar tribe, which boasts over 500,000 members in Syria, and the king has cemented these alliances through marriage. Abdullah also was one of the most influential Saudi officials regarding Syria in the early 1980s, when he worked closely with Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of former President Hafez al-Assad and then the head of the Defense Companies, the most feared enforcers at the time of Assad family rule.

The Saudi media is already suggesting Assad is breaching the deal. The daily al-Watan, quoting Syrian opposition members, claimed that regime forces are smuggling chemical weapons to the Lebanese paramilitary organization Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal, which is tied to an anti-Assad political party sympathetic to Riyadh, accused Syria of smuggling equipment for manufacturing chemical weapons to Iraq.

But however the process plays out, the Syrian rebels worry that the Obama administration just entangled itself in a diplomatic effort that will preserve Assad's rule for at least the next year. "We feel let down by the international community," rebel military chief Salim Idris said. "We don't have any hope."

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Can Twitter Go Public and Still Be a Champion of Free Speech?

With Twitter set to make its debut on American stock exchanges, a critical question looms: Can toppling dictators also be good business?

Over the course of its seven-year history, Twitter has gone from scrappy, disorganized start-up to a heavyweight of the social media revolution. In the process, it's become much more than a business. From Tahrir Square to Gezi Park, Twitter has made itself indispensible to activists everywhere, providing a tool to decry abuse, organize protests, and help overthrow bad leaders. "Now we have a menace that is called Twitter," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared in June amid widespread protests against his government. "The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society."

Soon, that menace to society will be the hottest technology IPO since Facebook's 2012 offering. But with a publicly traded stock, Twitter may find itself in something of an existential crisis. In establishing itself as the activist's weapon of choice, the social media company has built up a well-deserved reputation for fiercely protecting user data and standing up for free speech. Is that an ethos, however, that can be squared with Wall Street's relentless emphasis on profits and revenue? It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Twitter will have to sacrifice its values, at least somewhat, on the high altar of the quarterly earnings report.  

Among the three most important Internet companies today -- Twitter, Facebook, and Google -- Twitter occupies something of a unique position. "Twitter is the first major speech platform to come on the market with the intention of being a free-speech platform," says Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That identity poses a thorny problem for the company, which will inevitably change as it grows larger and its business expands. Other companies have already faced similar problems. "Google ... started out as 'don't be evil,' but as they grew, we've seen a lot more efforts to censor content," York says. 

Twitter has already run into trouble abroad, where governments, both democratic and otherwise, have not taken too kindly to a service that lets anyone and everyone broadcast thoughts onto the web. At the height of the protest movement in Egypt that brought down Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government blocked Twitter. During a wave of rioting in Britain in 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to shut the service down. (He did not.) In July of this year, French courts forced Twitter to hand over user data to help authorities identify the authors of anti-Semitic and racist tweets. In China, the service is blocked entirely.

For a young start-up with private investors, shutdowns like these pose no serious problems. But how will Wall Street react to service outages? Each time the service goes down, Twitter is effectively losing money, and that's something investors seem unlikely to accept. Thus, there will be an incentive for the company to make concessions to governments for the sake of achieving greater market share. "In the peaceful countries, it's an easy sell," Santosh Rao, a managing director and the head of research at Greencrest Capital, says of Twitter. "They are good for revolutions but bad in that bad elements can start a rumor. Twitter is a double-edged sword."

A spokesman for Twitter declined to comment on whether the company had considered the implications for its freedom of speech commitments when deciding to go public. However, the company has already made some notable concessions to the censorship laws of the countries in which it operates. In January 2012, for instance, it announced a new policy under which it granted itself the power to restrict some content in accordance with local laws. "As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression," the company wrote in announcing the policy. "Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there.... Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries' limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country -- while keeping it available in the rest of the world."

The question now is whether Twitter will make further concessions in order to widen its availability -- and boost its profits. For instance, to tap into the Chinese market, would it be willing to strike a deal with the Chinese government that would all but certainly entail rampant self-censorship? So far, there is no indication that such a move is underway, and according to Rao, Twitter's stock will be priced with the understanding that it cannot easily expand into China. But if there's any doubt about Wall Street's appetite for Internet companies moving aggressively into China, consider this: When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg made a stop there on Wednesday for a meeting with the country's Internet regulator, the company's stock jumped 3 percent to an all-time high.

For those concerned about Twitter's future as a defender of rights, the company's announcement that it plans to go public was accompanied by a worrying development: the departure of Alex Macgillivray, Twitter's general counsel and a champion of freedom of speech. "You don't want business interests affecting judgment about content," he told the Times last year. "That is against corporate interests. It's against the trust your users have in your service." The reasons Macgillivray is leaving the company now remain unknown.

The conundrum facing Twitter is one that's faced every iconoclastic up-start: Should it take the money and run? We'll know its answer soon enough.

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