As the Syrian war approaches the two year mark, the battle over communication rages.
By Dan Blue
The Syrian conflict is now entering its 18th straight month and the use of communication technology has become another front in an increasingly traumatic civil war. The Assad regime has been openly waging war on the lines of communication platforms for the rebels and the rebels must to continue to weigh the risks and rewards of each platform.
Here are three things to know about the access and usage of the internet and mobile phones in Syria.
Internet access is spotty, but mostly still “on”
There have been multiple temporary outages to internet access nation-wide since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, and regional outages have increased in frequency in places like Aleppo. Syrian internet access is tightly controlled through only 61 IP address prefixes for the entire country, compared to 900 for Lebanon, a country with roughly a tenth of the population. These IP prefixes are a critical component to global routing.
Syrian rebels have responded by finding new ways to connect to the internet—including setting up their own connectivity using satellite dishes. The State Department’s past efforts to assist opposition members through new technologies also seems it might be involved in assisting Syrian rebels, though the extent of which is not clear.
Phones and the internet are being used to get stories out, and coordinate within
Cell phone videos and YouTube have been the primary news sources for the outside world on what’s going on in Syria. The accessible and easy to use technologies have allowed many Syrians, regardless of agenda, to broadcast events on the ground to the outside world.
In addition to getting stories out, these same technologies have obviously helped coordinate the efforts of the rebels and are widely available, with well over 13 million mobile phone subscriptions in the country.
The regime has used the widespread access as well, sending a threatening SMS message across the country in late September, letting the rebels know “Game over”. Though the reach of this and other similar messages is not clear, such a message could easily be triggered from within either of the mobile network operators. The two mobile network operators in Syria are Syriatel, which is owned by Assad’s first cousin, Makhlouf, or MTN Syria, which is owned by the multinational corporation MTN Group.
A very sharp double-edged sword
Despite their importance, these technologies present a series of real risks to the rebels. In conflict areas, there has been increased targeting of those filming by members of the Syrian army as well as the use of these communication platforms by the Syrian regime to find and hunt down their rebel users and even journalists.
The two mobile network operators, Syriatel and MTN Syria, very likely operate by international telecom standards in terms of storing Call Data Records (CDRs). Even this baseline set CDR data–which for any call or SMS includes both mobile numbers, timestamp, duration, and approximate location based on tower–can provide quite a bit of useful information. For example, almost the entire indictment from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for the Hariri murder was based on this simple set of CDR data.
The trick with analyzing CDRs is knowing which mobile numbers to look for and cross reference CDRs against them. There is such an enormous volume of data that parsing it all would be near impossible; the regime would have to know where to look once they got access.
While the risks are real, the use of these technologies will very likely continue by the rebels. There is no real alternative other than not communicating and the risks of simply being in Syria while opposing the regime increase every day.
Dan Blue is a telecommunications analyst living in Detroit. He has previously lived and worked in Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, and India.
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