She Documented Syria's Chemical Atrocities. And Now She's Been Kidnapped.


BEIRUT - Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh was reportedly kidnapped today from her office in the suburbs of Damascus, along with her husband and two colleagues. It is still unknown whether she was taken by President Bashar al-Assad's regime or Islamist rebels who have been growing in strength in the area - she has loudly criticized both as mortal threats to the revolution.

In some ways, Zaitouneh is a throwback - one of the few internationally-known activists who has remained in Syria since the days when civic resistance, rather than armed revolt, were the uprising's calling card. A human rights lawyer, she launched the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which meticulously tracks the casualties of the Syrian uprising and provides ground-level reports of the atrocities committed by the regime. She has also spoken out against al Qaeda-affiliated groups' presence within rebel ranks - her last article castigated the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) for allegedly kidnapping a pro-revolution Syrian doctor, saying that the group's liquidation of human rights activists complemented the work of the Assad regime.

Zaitouneh has been a wanted woman for years, and journalists and activists alike were often astounded by her decision to remain in hiding in the Damascus suburbs. But her presence at the center of the conflict gave her a unique view on the events wracking her country: She and her team were some of the first activists on the scene following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, where they documented the unfolding tragedy. As she reported, several media activists lost their lives from sarin exposure by filming the aftermath of the attack.

Zaitouneh was chosen in 2011 as one of Foreign Policy's Global Thinkers, and recorded a video for our annual event explaining why Syrians would risk everything to stand up to the Assad regime. At the time, only 4,500 people had died - a figured that shocked Syrians then, but pales in comparison to the over 120,000 who have been killed today. In just a small sign of how challenging it must have been to conduct her work from the capital's battered suburbs, the process of sending FP the video turned into a day-long ordeal. The Internet connection where she was hiding was insufficient to upload the video, forcing her to head to another location - where the connection failed again. "I can't do it, it's impossible," she wrote to me in frustration at one point.

But in the end, the impossible became possible. Zaitouneh finally succeeded in sending us the video, and her explanation of why Syrians continue to go out to protest played in front of hundreds of people, and have been viewed on the Internet by thousands more. "We face one of the most brutal regimes in the region and the world, mostly with peaceful protests, songs of freedom - chanting for a new Syria and a new future," she said. "Discovering for the first time within decades our voices and personalities, and how it feels to bring down walls of fear as we stand for our beliefs."


What Does War Gaming for Peace Look Like?

In policy planning, there's a lot of effort involved when planning for conflict. Research papers and briefings, certainly, but also "war games" -- simulations of conflicts with experts on the various parties to the conflict acting out their roles. If Group A invades and takes this military base, how does Group B respond (or Group C, D, or E)? What if policymakers put as much thought into thinking through diplomatic scenarios as they do war scenarios? 

That was the question posed by PeaceGame, a simulation of diplomatic efforts around the Syrian civil war organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace and Foreign Policy Monday. The discussion brought together 45 experts, including former ambassadors and State Department officials, academics, and Arab activists, all together representing 19 groups influencing the war. It's the first of what is planned as a series of similar events. The next one is scheduled for Spring 2014 in the United Arab Emirates.

If you're trying to envision what it was like, imagine a high-level roleplaying game -- something akin to Model United Nations or Dungeons & Dragons (with FP CEO David Rothkopf as dungeonmaster). But the level of expertise was something else entirely. Former Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley and Casimir Yost, recently returned from the National Intelligence Council, represented the United States. 

PeaceGame sought to highlight the interests and roles of groups whose voices are frequently lost in often insular Washington policy discussions. Though they won't be in Geneva, Salafi militants, represented at today's event by Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor at the Stimson Center, did everything could to derail an agreement to end the war. USIP Associate Vice President Manal Omar spoke for Syrian civil society, and though they may not be at the negotiating table, Omar gamed out how they might implement -- or not -- a potential peace deal.

And how far does Bashar al-Assad think he can push his luck? Will he compromise if Russia drops its support? Former Ambassador Ted Kattouf and Syrian National Council member Murhaf Jouejati, who represented the Assad regime, didn't think so. He'll hold out until his support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria's domestic Alawite community starts to slip, they suggested. But, they added, others in his government may push him out as a means to save their own skin before that happens. Then there's the long-term: Former Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer noted that an agreement is one thing, but for peace to be sustainable, it will require a generation of multinational oversight and, she stressed, funding. 

Plans for an even more in-depth conversation were cut short by the threat of a snowstorm in Washington Tuesday, curtailing a conversation on potential spoilers to an agreement.

For more on Monday's event, you can see check USIP and Foreign Policy's updates from throughout the day on Twitter. USIP will soon be posting video from the event here.