“Internet will be a tyrant’s best friend,” Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian researcher specialized in the political and social implications of new technologies, predicted several years ago. During the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, which were often labeled “2.0,” social networks and smartphones played an important role in popular mobilizations. In Syria, the Ba’athist regime seems to have learned its lessons from the Arab Spring, and is thinking hard about how to deal with cyber-dissidence.
Beyond the traditional armed conflict on the ground, a second front has emerged online, rife with fake information, manipulation, propaganda and counter-propaganda. It is hard to untangle truths from falsehoods.
Take for instance the fantastic story of Russian general Vladimir Petrovitch Kotchiev, who was first announced dead in a YouTube video posted by an armed opposition group, with contradictory rebuttals. The general in question finally had to prove he was still alive during a televised press conference. Fake declarations of defections or of captured neighborhoods in Aleppo have multiplied these past few days, from both camps.
On the rebellion’s side, this cyber-dissidence is still led by amateurs, with the support of the Syrian National Council (SNC, the main opposition force). “They are mostly young intellectuals from the upper middle class, who are helped by a strong diaspora that can escape Internet censorship,” says Mathieu Guidère, a geopolitical scientist and specialist of the Arab world who teaches at the University of Toulouse in southwestern France.
Their main playground: social networks and sharing websites. Via Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, they get informed about the situation in different cities in the country – with varying accuracy. The major goal is to reach the international community and Western opinion.
“But the information isn’t that easy to transmit. Often the videos have to transit through a foreign location. The lockdown on the telecommunications system forces the Free Syrian Army to work in a fragmented, non-coordinated manner,” says Guidère. For example, the rebel chiefs are forced to physically meet to take any decision, given the dangers of using an easily localizable telephone.
Bashar al-Assad’s regime, on the other hand, has professionalized. SyriaTel, the main communications company, and the country's Internet service providers are the property of Rami al-Makhlouf, the president’s cousin. “The Syrian electronic army and military intelligence have taken things into their own hands, and they use collected data for repressive purposes. If an opponent posts a video from an IP address located in Syria, there’s a 99 percent chance that he will be located within the hour and receive a visit from the shabiha [regime militias] in the next three hours,” says Guidère.
“They are very professional: instead of bombarding a phone relay, they will install wire taps at the relay itself. They’re not in it for the show, but for efficiency.”
But controlling communications networks doesn’t mean the regime dominates them: until a few weeks ago, Damascus struggled to get its voice heard on the international stage. Its messages mostly transited through State television, the official Sana press agency, Lebanese Hezbollah relays like the Al-Manar television station or the Iranian press. Not exactly the best way to attract Western sympathy.
For Guidère, the real turning point came with the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency in March. Since then, Damascus’s point of view has been widely relayed. “The Russian Itar-Tass press agency must have received instructions. Furthermore, we know thanks to WikiLeaks documents [2.4 million e-mails exchanged by the Syrian regime] that Western companies, most notably American and French – like Qosmos – have brought their expertise to Bashar al-Assad in the communications field.”
The rebels may be amateurs but they are fully aware of the stakes online. “They have popular support, which enables them to collect videos of everything that is happening on the territory,” says Guidère.
“Assad has fixed all the holes in his cyber-system”
Today, this aspect of the conflict has become so crucial that “when the regime arrests a dissident, the first thing they ask for are his social network user ID and password,” says François-Bernard Huyghe, research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations and manager at the Geostrategic Observatory of Information. For him, the Ba’ath party is used to psychological attrition conflicts and it is genetically structured for this type of information warfare.
But these virtual battles alone cannot be decisive. On the ground, the repercussions of cyber-opposition are almost null. For Huyghe, if the rebels have the advantage in this cyber-war – and manage to attract more support throughout international opinion, it is mostly a symbolic victory. “If all it took were Internet mobilization, the Saudi Arabians and the Bahrainis would have toppled their regime a long time ago. But repression won over,” he says.
For Guidère, if Damascus manages to quell the rebellion, it will come out of the conflict greatly strengthened. “Bashar al-Assad has fixed all the holes in his cyber-system. If he wins, the regime will be more repressive than ever.”