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[liberationtech] Syria's Digital Proxy War | The Atlantic
rachel.fredman at gmail.com
Thu Nov 1 13:19:22 PDT 2012
Of interest to many on this list:
Syria's Digital Proxy War By Sean Lyngaas
*Iran and the United States are squaring off in a life-or-death battle for
A Free Syrian Army fighter speaks on a radio in al Qusayr. (Goran
There is a proxy war going on in Syria, one measured in megabytes rather
than in arms. On one side, Iran is providing Bashar al-Assad's regime with
the tools of digital dictatorship to locate and bait the Syrian opposition.
On the other side, the United States is trying to help the opposition
protect itself from such attacks and set up alternate channels of
communication. The outcome of this proxy war will affect the lives of many
Syrians and the credibility of the State Department's efforts to promote
digital freedom internationally.
The Syrian regime has long been interested in improving its online
repression. Dlshad Othman, a member of the Syrian opposition and an
Internet expert, says that in recent years the regime has sent its
bureaucrats abroad for technical training in places like Dubai. But Assad's
censorship efforts remained clumsy and at times ineffectual until the
uprising against him began last year. He then re-opened social media to the
public in order to better monitor and crush dissent, and confided in the
Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security for surveillance techniques.
We are now seeing Iran's sophisticated online crackdown on its own Green
Movement in 2009 being applied by Assad in Syria. Pro-regime hackers pose
chat rooms to lure and locate the opposition before gunmen are
dispatched to kill them.
Contrary to recent reports that the Syrian regime could unplug the country
from the web entirely, Assad considers the Internet a vital tool to winning
the civil war. This is a cyber war, Othman told me. It is an opportune time
for the United States to show that its support of digital freedom can save
lives. If communications technology is the way in which the United States
chooses to intervene in the Syrian conflict, why not unleash the full
capabilities of American technology?
An argument against arming the rebels is the possibility of weapons ending
up in jihadist hands. But is communications equipment just as dangerous? On
the contrary, more coordinated and safer communications between commanding
officers in the Free Syrian Army and the jihadists who have joined their
cause may help reel in the latter in a post-Assad Syria.
There are currently two separate U.S. policies that are falling short of
Washington's goal of safer and more widespread communication among the
Syrian opposition. The first is American sanctions on Syria that make it
more difficult for the regime's opponents to obtain vital anti-tracking
software. With fewer tools to evade government surveillance, these Syrian
activists are more vulnerable to Assad's death squads. The second is the
State Department's distribution of satellite phones, modems, and other gear
to the Syrian opposition through a training program based in Istanbul.
Reports that this equipment has only on occasion reached the front lines
bode ill for the rebels and for America's future influence in Syria.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made the freedom to communicate --
whether online, on the phone, or in the public square -- a central goal of
U.S. statecraft over the last four years. The State Department has ramped
up funding for projects promoting Internet freedom, with $30 million
allocated last year on circumventing censorship.
But for every dollar the United States has spent on Internet freedom,
countries like Iran and China have spent many times more in
countermeasures. Iran has spent about $1 billion on an internal version of
the Internet that analysts say is nearing completion. *The Washington Post *
week that there is a shortfall in funding for the State Department
Internet freedom program. With budget cuts looming over many U.S. foreign
aid programs because of the fiscal crisis, the funding gap between Tehran
and Washington on the subject seems likely to widen.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called his country's
investment in Internet censorship "the soft war" against the United States
and he sees it as a strategic asset to be deployed to protect its regional
"Nowhere in the region has (censorship) been as severe as in Iran, which is
what makes their assisting Syria so dangerous," Jillian C. York, an expert
on Internet censorship at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told me
in an email. The Syrian opposition could benefit greatly from technical
circumvent government surveillance. But U.S. sanctions on Syria make
illegal for American tech firms to sell this software to the Syrian
opposition. The few exemptions that exist have not been effective in making
this software more available to Syrian users.
As for the estimated $10 million in communications equipment that the State
Department designated for the "Office of Syrian Opposition Support,"
details are hard to come by. State Department officials declined to comment
for this article and communications experts interviewed said the aid is
shrouded in secrecy. "It's been totally non-transparent," said EFF's
Jillian York. "While I understand the need for some secrecy, the State
Department should make this information available to certain groups, as we
have no idea if they're following important security procedures."
According to reports from *The Washington
*and *The Telegraph<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9500503/Britain-and-US-plan-a-Syrian-revolution-from-an-innocuous-office-block-in-Istanbul.html>
*, the communications aid comes in the form of satellite phones, laptops,
and other equipment that are distributed from an office in Istanbul to
heavily vetted Syrians. The State Department says that 900 satellite phones
have been distributed and 1,000 activists have been trained to use the
But Istanbul's sheer distance from the Syrian border means the equipment
and training are off-limits to many opposition activists and rebels located
in Syria. And whether or not the equipment is reaching the rebels, the
perception that it isn't matters for America's credibility in the conflict.
The rebels' impressions about who was there for them when they were under
siege will be hard to change. This will leave bitter memories and diminish
American influence in Syria going forward.
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