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Syria’s rebels fight with weapons and words

Shaam News Network

NEW YORK -- The Syrian civil war is being fought not just on the country’s streets, where any square block can become a battlefield, but also on websites and social networks where the opposing sides are waging a war of words.

As the bullets and mortars fly, this parallel battle seeks to harness the sometimes-decisive power of propaganda. For many opposition groups in Syria, getting their side of the story out to the wider world has been a key objective in their mission to oust the oppressive regime of President Bashar al Assad.

And while Western nations have refused to put boots on the ground, and been extremely reluctant to provide assistance to the rebels, Western technology is playing a vital role in helping Syrian fighters and activists on the ground share news and intelligence inside the country and abroad.

The technology has also been used -- by both sides in the war -- as a modern means of disseminating old-fashioned propaganda. The message, often in the form of video, can be manipulated to elicit support from foreign, sympathetic viewers.

Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been vital tools for those in Syria who want to communicate beyond their borders. Without many of the apps and services that Westerners often take for granted, from social networking to video-sharing sites, the opposition would have struggled even more in its fight against the regime.  This technology has enabled Syrians to bring worldwide attention to atrocities that occur with disturbing regularity.

But Internet connectivity in Syria is often stymied by government-controlled blocks and filters, problems further compounded by power cuts and poor infrastructure.

Khaled, an app maker who didn’t want to give his last name, told CBS News how the Syrian government would, in the early days of the conflict, hinder opposition efforts by blocking access to the Internet. This would delay video feeds, social media posts and news from getting out. At the very least, these efforts would "delay it and make it old news,” he said. More recently, the regime has shut down access "right before they would invade an area, or if they were preparing a massacre, or a move of weaponry," according to Khaled.

Syrian fighters and activists have had to find viable alternatives to many of the Western services that were blocked and censored during the initial uprising in early 2011.

One such service, Bambuser, grew to popularity among activists as a video and live broadcasting site that Syrians were able to access. It is often used to live stream coverage of the conflict as it happens. The service quickly rose to popularity following one particular event, when the western city of Homs -- close to the Lebanese border -- came under heavy shelling by the Assad regime. The mortar strikes killed 10 people, according to reports.

Known on the site as "homslive," Abo Mohamad Ibraahim, a manager at the Shaam News Network in Homs, used the service for almost three hours to document the military's assault on the city in June 2012. This was in spite of cellular and landline Internet blocks put in place by the Syrian government months before in February.

Bambuser founder Mans Adler described it on the company's blog as a "terrifying but very important video" which showed "the brutality of a ruthless war on civilians." It had a powerful impact on public opinion and led to an escalation in critical rhetoric from Western political leaders.

President Obama said Assad had "lost legitimacy" after the video surfaced. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Syria was on the brink of civil war, just days before the United Nations declared that the conflict had already descended into one. 

The Homs video was aired on the BBC, CNN, Sky News and Al Jazeera, reaching millions of people worldwide. Journalists use the service because it is easier to verify live streaming video than clips posted on YouTube, which can be doctored and altered before they’re uploaded, even though it required watching hours of not-much-happening to catch a moment of important news.

The Homs event helped spur on the service's use by opposition forces in the country. Bambuser remains popular with Syrian activists because it is free and easy to use, and the service has since partnered with the Associated Press news agency in order to share broadcasts with the wider media.

Where Western services cannot fill the need, however, Syrian programmers have created mobile apps that aggregate news and information from various sources to spread to users both inside and outside the country.

Khaled is one of many silent, widely unknown mobile app makers who seek neither fame nor financial reward for their work. While he shies from public attention, the apps created by him and others like him are put to work by thousands of fighters, activists and civilians every day who rely on them not only to consume information, but also to add to the pool of intelligence they hope will advance their cause.

The app Khaled created collects information and news from trusted sources, including social media sites, and shares it with others. It aims to assist those seeking refuge from the regular barrage of shells and mortars that fall in many areas across the country by providing a vast amount of "crowdsourced" information, including real-time updates on events as they unfold.

Khaled’s app is a vital source of information for foreign media and news agencies that seek on-the-ground perspective from hundreds or thousands of miles away. It also serves as a running commentary on the conflict, feeding a constant -- if one-sided -- stream of information to international watchdogs around the world.

But in the face of war, news and information apps and video sites such as Bambuser and YouTube can be used to manipulate, not just inform.

The Syrian opposition rarely reports its own mistakes or acknowledges the atrocities they commit themselves. While the United Nations has said there is a growing body of evidence collected by investigators on the ground that senior Syrian officials, including Assad himself, are involved in war crimes, the global body has also voiced concerns over the opposition's actions over the course of the conflict. You wouldn’t know it from the carefully crafted messages that the rebels put out.

As the conflict grinds on, the Syrian opposition has found other uses for technology, such as practical battlefield functions like mapping and logistical communication, but the greatest purpose it serves is helping them spread their message to the outside world.

This is the third article in a three-part series

Part 1: Syrian opposition logs on at any cost

Part 2: Surveillance and censorship on the Syrian Internet