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Twitterati report: Syria trip mixes work with play

The State Department’s two leading Twitterati, Special Advisor on Innovation Alec J. Ross (@alecjross) and Policy Planning staffer Jared Cohen (@jaredcohen), are in Syria this week leading a delegation of tech companies hoping to, as the Wall Street Journal‘s Jay Solomon puts it, "woo President Bashar al-Assad away from his strategic alliance with Iran" with ...

The State Department’s two leading Twitterati, Special Advisor on Innovation Alec J. Ross (@alecjross) and Policy Planning staffer Jared Cohen (@jaredcohen), are in Syria this week leading a delegation of tech companies hoping to, as the Wall Street Journal‘s Jay Solomon puts it, "woo President Bashar al-Assad away from his strategic alliance with Iran" with offers of networking equipment, computer software, and the like.

But it’s not all work and no play for Ross and Cohen, who have been finding some time to take in the sights and tell us about it, 140 characters at a time. For example, according to Ross, on Tuesday Cohen challenged the Syrian Minister of Telecom to a cake-eating contest and called it "Creative Diplomacy." Match that, Tehran!

Ross and Cohen both tweeted about their trip to the Tonino Lamborghini Caffe Lounge in Damascus, but while Ross was "amused" by the place, Cohen wants his 300,000-plus tweeps to know that "I’m not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappacino ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus."

Good to know!

There were some travel tips as well. "Feel bad for @alecjross who I just watched get charged 5000 Syrian pounds at an ATM and only get 500 out of machine," tweeted Cohen.

In between drinking frappuccinos and touring such places as the Souk al-Hamadiye, the famous covered marketplace in Damascus, Cohen and Ross did find time to hold substantive meetings with Syrian students, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, government officials, and Assad himself.

The students complained that the Syrian government blocked Google, Tashkil, Facebook, YouTube, etc., according to Cohen. Apparently they don’t block Twitter…

Ross explained that the trip is not just about engaging Assad. "This trip to #Syria will test Syria’s willingness to engage more responsibly on issues of #netfreedom," he tweeted.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin