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Why YouTube Has Become an Important Intelligence Source

Photographer: Nasser Nouri/Xinhua/eyevine/Redux

Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in Idlib, Syria, on Feb. 10, 2012. Close

Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in Idlib, Syria, on Feb. 10, 2012.

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Photographer: Nasser Nouri/Xinhua/eyevine/Redux

Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in Idlib, Syria, on Feb. 10, 2012.

A tall, muscular figure silhouetted against a palm-studded city block shoulders a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, aims and fires at a Syrian armored vehicle in the distance.

The video of the attack, one of thousands posted on YouTube by the Syrian opposition, reveals the rebels’ growing capabilities and the wear-and-tear on the Assad regime’s forces, said Jeffrey White, a retired U.S. defense intelligence analyst. The Russian-made BMP infantry fighting vehicle was buttoned up tight, a sign the soldiers inside were wary, he said.

“It wasn’t a wild shot,” said White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who relies on such video clips and the Facebook pages of rebel units in evaluating strengths and weaknesses of the Free Syrian Army and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. “I wouldn’t say it’s a demonstration of mastery of the military art, but it looks like it wasn’t casual or uninformed.”

The social networks of Google Inc. (GOOG)’s YouTube, Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. (FB), which provided global visibility for the uprisings of the Arab Spring, also have become important sources of information for U.S. and other intelligence agencies. Analysts prowl the Internet to supplement what they learn from spies, satellite photos and intercepted communications on the fighting in Syria, where diplomatic listening posts have closed.

Now they are watching the Web to monitor a cease-fire brokered by the United Nations. The agreement was tested today, as clashes broke out in areas including Idlib and Aleppo in the north, Hama in central Syria and Daraa in the south, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella opposition group.

Getting 10,300 Results

A search for “Free Syrian Army” on YouTube yesterday generated 10,300 results. Some show rebel units with every member toting an AK-47 and a few holding more sophisticated gear or mounting weapons on pickup trucks, as rebel fighters did in Libya.

While most of the clips can’t be independently verified, the scenes they depict match reporting from inside Syria and human rights groups’ accounts, and some show recognizable landmarks.

The videos fill at least some of the gaps in knowledge of the military capabilities on both sides of a conflict that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 9,000 people, and has prompted President Barack Obama to demand that Assad leave office.

Grenade Launchers

The YouTube videos show rebel forces dressed in camouflage or just in jeans and warm-up jackets storming regime positions or wielding rocket-propelled grenade launchers as a tank burns in the background on a narrow city street.

One clip shows opposition fighters in a boulder-strewn field toting two grenade launchers, at least one apparently loaded.

“The battalion of martyr Ahmad Khalaf is seeking to end the siege of the town of Karak,” one fighter says on the video. “There is a rocky plateau ahead. Once we are there, they will be about 500 meters away from us.”

Another fighter advises checking the range on the launcher.

The device appears to be a tube for a Russian-made 9K-115 Metis shoulder-launched missile system, said James Bevan, director of U.K.-based Conflict Armament Research Ltd.

Opposition Weapons

Most of the opposition’s weapons appear to have come from Syrian forces, probably recovered in attacks, scooped up in raids, or bought from sympathetic regime soldiers, wrote Joseph Holliday, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, in a 57-page report on Syria’s armed opposition published last month.

Exceptions are M-16 automatic rifles or shotguns that can be bought on the open market in Turkey or elsewhere, White said in an interview.

“The most interesting weaponry we’ve seen is anti-tank guided missiles,” White said. “For the rebels to have that kind of capability is very important.”

White counts a working list of 150 formations of the armed opposition. That includes 68 named battalions of 50 to 200 fighters each, for a total force of 3,000 to 14,000. He said he has “high confidence” that 27 of those units exist, medium confidence in 27 more and low confidence in 14.

White said he’s begun to see higher-level brigade formations for greater coordination among units and communications with Free Syrian Army headquarters in Turkey. The Free Syrian Army also is using heavy machine guns to shoot down the helicopters the regime has begun to employ.

Assad’s Army

Assad’s Syrian military numbers about 295,000 on active duty, according to the 2012 edition of “The Military Balance,” an annual appraisal of armed forces worldwide published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Reserves stood at 314,000. Assad’s army, though, was built to fight the Israelis, and it’s had little combat experience since the 1982 war in Lebanon, especially in urban warfare.

Because the active-duty figure includes administrative and support personnel, White estimates the number of combat forces at less than 100,000. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 16 that the Syrian regime has committed about 80 percent of its maneuver brigades to the fight.

“They have to use the army almost everywhere all the time to deal with the opposition,” said White, who’s argued in favor of U.S. aid to the rebels.

While the opposition hasn’t been able to stop Assad’s forces from retaking territory during an offensive, the Free Syrian Army was able to inflict damage and survive, White said.

“There is no permanent clearing of an area by the regime,” White told an audience at the Washington Institute this week. “What the FSA does is it erodes the regime. It bleeds the regime.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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