To fight Assad, Syrian opposition logs on at any cost

Shaam News Network

NEW YORK -- Bayan's home Internet connection rarely connects to the outside world. When he opens his web browser, many mainstream news sites don’t load, as if the pages were down completely.

They aren’t. Bayan lives in southern Syria, close to the Jordanian border. His balky connection is a result of tactics used by the Syrian government to curb free speech and stop opposition forces from communicating with each other in the country and their supporters in the outside world. 

Though Syria’s infrastructure is hardly robust by U.S. standards, access to the Internet is often deliberately inhibited by the regime of President Bashar al Assad. 

Despite the technological hurdles, Bayan was able to speak to CBS News via Skype, one of many free Internet communication services used by opposition fighters trying to find a way around the government’s restrictions. Bayan, not his real name, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal by the Syrian government. 

"The first day was March 18, 2011," he said. That was the day during which protests broke out in a number of Syrian cities, a few months after similar uprisings enveloped the region, from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya to Yemen.

Syria's ruling Baath party has long banned public demonstrations. Still, scores of people took to the streets to protest the Assad regime's authoritarian rule. Dozens were arrested in Damascus and the sprawling northern city of Aleppo. At least six were killed in the southern city of Daraa after police escalated their crowd-control strategy of water cannons and tear gas to gunfire.

The following day, Bayan said Internet connections in those cities were severed, forcing a vast majority of the Syrian population offline. He said cellular and 3G services were also cut off.

The United Nations has deemed Internet access a "human right." Internet access helps opposition forces organize and respond to threats. It is also a vital way for friends and family to remain in touch amid the chaos.

But for many Syrians, surviving and trying to stay safe amid the ongoing civil war is far higher in their day-to-day priorities than the "luxury" of Internet access, as described by one of those affected by the conflict.

It takes guile and gumption to get online in parts of the country. 

Bayan described how he "piggybacks" the cell network in neighboring countries from areas near the Syrian border, using ordinary household items to amplify the signal.

He places a 3G modem in a metal kitchen bowl and points it to the nearest Jordanian cell tower for the best reception. The metal bowl amplifies the signal considerably, he said, allowing him to reach speeds to stream video. More importantly, by connecting to a high-range Wi-Fi access point, Bayan said he can broadcast service more than 2 miles around him, acting as an Internet intermediary for others in his city.

"I can give Internet access to other activists in a town near me,” he said, “or in a neighborhood far away from me in the same city.” Similar techniques are used at Syria’s shared borders with Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon, he said.

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In war-torn Syria, connectivity and communication are crucial for citizen journalists and homegrown media outlets to share video and reports of events on the ground.

The Assad regime’s tactics first drew Western attention in November 2012, after a major outage took much of the country offline for days at a time. Two more outages  occurred in May and August 2013.

 

renesys_syria_cables_map-resized.jpg
Renesys
 

Syrian government officials often blamed the outages on "terrorists," referring to the opposition. They cited the cutting of the four vital fiber optic cables that connect the country to the outside world as the primarily reason for the breadth of the outage.

Internet experts rebuffed the claims. 

"There have been a handful of times… where Syria has effectively dropped off the Internet," according to Matthew Prince, chief technology officer at CloudFlare, a San Francisco-based company that monitors Internet connectivity around the globe.

It is "implausible" that the cables were cut, Prince said, because of the decentralized nature of the Internet. "If one of the fiber optic cables was cut, the data traffic would find the next closest route and flow over one of the other cables.”

What is far more likely is that a state-run Internet provider "withdrew the instructions of how traffic gets in and out of the Syrian network,” Prince said. Indeed, the state telecoms company, Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE), controls much of the country's infrastructure and connectivity.

The border gateway protocol essentially allows for the Internet to function across borders. It gives packets of data 'hints' that direct where it should go between individual networks across the Internet. 

"What happens when the border gateway protocol routes are withdrawn, the router which is responsible for the Syrian network stops giving 'hints' to the rest of the world,” he added. “So the outside world tries to send data, but the upstream router has no idea where to send it."

With Syria’s outages, "It was systematic,” Prince said. “It all happened in the space of a couple of minutes. But it wasn't like an instantaneous drop. It was more like someone typing commands into a router."

Internet monitoring firm Renesys acknowledged in an August blog post that it sees a "strong correlation" between disruptions in Turk Telekom's service, which brings in international connectivity via Turkey, and Internet outages in Aleppo. The rest of the country often remains connected while Aleppo suffers outages as southern cables provided by PCCW and Deutsche Telekom both continue to work. The northern city faces almost daily fighting between regime and opposition forces, and saw its most recent city-wide outage in August.

"That suggests -- somewhat circumstantially but pretty convincingly -- that this was done not by a bunch of rebels blowing up some central hub, but someone who had login access to the routers inside Syria," Prince said.

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In one leaked document published by British newspaper The Telegraph, the Assad regime has been shown to systematically shut down the country's Internet at specific times. 

"The Internet is to be completely disconnected," in eastern districts, Daraa, and Homs, the translated document reads. One week later, Google reported flat-line traffic from the country.

Khaled lives close to the Syrian border in a neighboring country, though he declined to state exactly where. Speaking to CBS News on the condition that his full name not be used, he said two-and-a-half years of war has seen the country regress technologically to "the 1950s."

He explained how his colleagues dealt with frequent and often lengthy power cuts. "People went back to older technologies," he said. "Fax machines and radio are still being used."

During the early days of fighting, local Syrian traders would smuggle in crucial technology -- smartphones, networking technology, radio equipment -- across borders, from Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

Khaled said his friend uses a car battery to charge his laptop, and developed a switch for it to ensure uninterrupted power when the grid source cuts out. "The disconnection is limited to seconds," he said. 

The greatest threat to connectivity, Khaled said, comes in the form of power cuts. "The majority of those affected would be lucky to get electricity for a few hours a day -- or even once a day," he said. Diesel generators are commonly used, but fuel supplies can be scarce. 

In response to the Assad regime’s actions, some countries which back the Syrian opposition are supplying communication technologies to opposition fighters. 

During the early days of the conflict in 2011, Bayan said many local traders smuggled technology across the borders. Supply routes have since been severed as neighboring states are bolstering their borders in efforts to prevent the Syrian conflict from spilling over into their own countries. 

Many fighters and activists on the ground are using Western nation-supplied satellite phones. The U.S. government shipped its first support package to the armed Syrian opposition in April, including $8 million in medical supplies and food rations, as part of a wider $60 million non-lethal aid package. Likewise, the British government increased its humanitarian aid package in August 2012 to unarmed opposition groups, human rights activists, and civilians, by sending shipments of body armor and communications gear. 

Despite Britain's reluctance to provide weapons to the fighters, the U.K. Foreign Office said providing mobile and satellite phones and radar equipment will help overcome the Syrian government's jamming and blocking techniques. 

The regime, in spite of its control over the state's communications and networks, cannot block all communications. 

For Bayan, his role in the war is from his home in the south of the country, determined to keep his neighborhood connected with his makeshift hotspot. 

And if his connection falters? He said he’ll find another way.

This is the first article in a three-part series

Part 2: Surveillance and censorship on the Syrian Internet

Part 3: How modern technology is fueling the propaganda war in Syria

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