The Syrian Regime's Survival Strategy: Shut Down the Web

Anti-government Syrian media activists set up an illegal Internet satellite to upload photos and video of the destruction by government shelling and bombardment of areas controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) on Oct. 22, 2012 in Aleppo, Syria Photograph by Scott Peterson/Getty Images

When the Internet went dark in Syria last month, it halted more than just the opposition’s Facebook campaigns and YouTube videos of atrocities committed by government forces. It caused a lot of action on the ground to grind down as well. “Most aid work stopped because the people involved could not exchange the needs and the addresses to which aid should be delivered,” says Susanne Fischer, Middle East program manager at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, which offers training in digital security to activists in the Arab world. Fischer says that “some overworked activists were forced to take a break. When I asked one person inside what he had been doing while being cut off from the Internet, he said: ‘I played video games.’”

Syria’s civil war appears to have entered a decisive phase. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are digging in as rebel fighters close in on Damascus. It’s little coincidence that the rebels’ push toward the capital gained strength after activists regained access to the Internet following a two-day blackout in late November. It remains an open question, however, whether that momentum will be slowed should the government attempt to shut down the Web again.

During the blackout last month, efforts to forge alternative methods of communication met limited success. The country’s cell phone networks are spotty. In some areas of the country, such as parts of Aleppo, where fighting continues, service had been taken down altogether. Some activists tried to use landlines to reach dial-up servers outside the country but foundered on the country’s slow, faulty connections. In response to the outage, Google restarted a program called Speak2Tweet, a service it originally set up in 2011 during the revolution in Egypt. The service allows a user to a call a number outside the country and record a message to be posted on Twitter. Uptake was limited in Syria. “It seems like it wasn’t easy to make calls from inside to outside,” says Dlshad Othman, a Syrian activists in the U.S. who provides technical supports to activists in Syria. “So really, it wasn’t useful.”

In some parts of the country, even the most robust backup plans fell apart. In Damascus, activists sometimes use satellite phones for emergencies, minimizing their chances of being tracked by connecting for short amounts of time while driving aimlessly or calling from remote parts of town, far from their usual areas of operation. But while connections generally worked in rebel-held areas, in some sections of the country, including the capital, calls weren’t going through. “We couldn’t tell if it was jamming, but there was definitely a problem,” says Albarah El-khani, chief executive of Syrian NationalMedia Center, which is run by WATAN, an umbrella group of Syrian activists. For the entire period of the blackout, he didn’t hear from his news team in the Syrian capital. “I lost contact with them for two days, which means I didn’t have a single piece of news from Damascus,” he says.

The cause of the blackout remains unknown. Analysis indicates that the shutdown was sudden and centralized, “like a switch being thrown,” according to Rensys, an Internet consultancy that monitors the Internet. “Either there was a problem with all three international gateways at the same time, or somebody disconnected it from the source,” says Othman. Adds Fischer: “It is very unlikely that anybody but the government would be able to carry this out.” For its part, the Syrian government blamed “terrorists,” meaning Syrian rebels, for the outage.

When the Web came back online Dec. 1, Twitter accounts belonging to pro-government hackers sent out celebratory tweets. Not long later, Syrian activists reported being hit by malware attacks. A remote access Trojan, which allows its sender to take over its victim’s computer, had been concealed in a file purporting to be a list of people wanted by the government in Damascus. “We did not expect it at that time in particular, but one always has to be prepared for that kind of attack,” says Fischer, who also runs Cyber Arabs, a group promoting Internet security, which posted a warning about the problem on Dec. 2. “As long as the fighting on the street will not stop, the cyberwar will also continue.”

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