Syria Internet Cut as Battle Rages Near Damascus Airport

Syria Internet Links Cut Amid Battle Near Damascus Airport
A Syrian man connects on his Facebook account at an internet cafe, in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)

Syria’s communications to the outside world were cut across large parts of the country as battles raged close to Damascus airport and foreign airlines canceled flights.

Communications including cellular networks, landlines and the Internet in many parts of Syria were cut, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mailed statement today. All Internet traffic in and out of Syria was shut down at 12:26 p.m. local time without warning, according to Renesys Corp., a Manchester, New Hampshire-based Web monitoring company.

The outage is so extensive that essentially all of Syria is cut off from the Internet, making it the most significant country-wide outage since Egypt’s Internet went dark in Jan. 2011 amid violent protests, it said.

“The Syrian Internet is only about 2 percent the size of Egypt’s Internet, it’s a much smaller place,” said Jim Cowie, chief technology officer and co-founder of Renesys. “It’s extremely plausible someone could do this by turning off the Internet, or that it’s collateral damage of someone turning off the power in critical facilities.”

Syria is working to repair a breakdown in the main Internet connection, state television reported. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi blamed “terrorists” for the disruption, Al Arabiya television reported.

U.S. Supplies

Most of Syria’s Internet Protocol addresses are managed by one organization, a telecommunications company called the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment that has close ties to the Syrian government, Cowie said.

The U.S. has supplied communications equipment to Syrian opposition groups, designed to circumvent Syrian government networks, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington today. The equipment was given to “dozens” of local councils and includes computers, cameras, and phones, she said.

Syrian forces and rebels engaged in heavy fighting near the main airport in Damascus, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. Emirates and EgyptAir both canceled flights to and from Syria. Austria’s Defense Ministry said two of its soldiers assigned to the United Nations force in the Golan Heights were wounded as they approached the airport. Their injuries weren’t serious, it said.

Civil War

Syria’s 20-month civil war has resulted in at least 40,000 deaths, the Observatory says, and rises by about 150 a day as opposition forces seek to oust the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“It bears repeating that the situation is bad in Syria and getting worse but unfortunately the parties themselves are not ready to have an internal solution,” UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters in New York today after briefing the Security Council.

John M. “Mike” McConnell, former U.S. director of national intelligence, said the Syrian opposition relies partly on the Internet for its command-and-control capabilities, and that the Syrian government was effectively shutting those down.

“It’s just so easy now to coordinate with mobile phones and Internet platforms” and in many cases that’s all that is available to the opposition, McConnell said.

By shutting off the Internet, the government may hurt its own communication abilities as well, McConnell said, although it can rely on other technologies, including older microwave technology.

Cease-Fire Needed

The outage could benefit either the rebels or the Syrian government, Cowie of Renesys said.

“This is the chainsaw that takes out the entire Internet,” Cowie added.

In New York, Brahimi offered little optimism that the fighting will end soon.

“What is very, very urgently needed is a cease-fire that can hold,” he said, while echoing his predecessor, Kofi Annan, in criticizing the Security Council for divisions that hinder international influence. A UN peacekeeping force will be needed whenever there is a cease-fire to make sure it is observed, he said.

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