Syria's Digital Proxy War

Iran and the United States are squaring off in a life-or-death battle for information.

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A Free Syrian Army fighter speaks on a radio in al Qusayr. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

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 as dissidents in 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?

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.

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.

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Sean Lyngaas is a freelance journalist and foreign policy analyst based in Washington, D.C.

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