Syria's Digital Proxy War

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

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?

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 reported this 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 interests.

"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 assistance to circumvent government surveillance. But U.S. sanctions on Syria make it 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 Post and The Telegraph, 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 equipment.

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.