Keeping the Internet Alive in Syria

 By Jason Kanno

Communication with the outside world is a precious commodity in war-torn Syria. Bashar Al-Assad’s government maintains near-absolute control over the country’s Internet connections. Anxiety is now growing that Al-Assad will shut down Internet service in Syria.

The flag of Syrian independence.

With physical access to Syria so limited, the loss of Internet access to the rebel forces and civilians caught in the crossfire would further isolate the country from the rest of the world.

Since the uprising against the Syrian government began last year, Al-Assad’s regime clamped off the direct flow of information crossing Syria’s borders. Few aid workers and journalists manage to find access to the war-torn country, much less find a way back out again, narrowing the outside world’s window into the events tearing Syria apart. The rest of the world relies on what little Internet access the Syrian people have left to piece together what conditions are like inside the country.

Internet access in Syria is controlled by the state-owned Syrian Telecommunications Establishment. Of the 66 networks with access outside of the country, the Syrian government commands 61.  Al-Assad’s regime also controls the cellular telecommunications space over Syria, demonstrating its telecommunications dominion by shutting down the networks over Aleppo in September.

Due to the iron grip the government keeps over telecommunications, Syrian rebels are forced to resort to compensate with tactics straight out of a Jason Bourne movie. To avoid detection on the telecommunications networks, rebel fighters purchase pay-as-you-go cell phones which they dispose of after only a few uses. While the cell network was down in Aleppo, the fighters resorted to satellite phones.

Information leaving Syria comes sporadically and often in less than conventional formats. While reports of the number of deaths and the degree of violence coming out of Syria varies, videos uploaded to YouTube provide a very real and often graphic depiction of conditions in the country. Simply typing “Syria” as a search on YouTube returns auto-complete results such as “Syria violence” or “Syria fighting.”

It remains unclear if and when Al-Assad’s regime will shut down all telecommunications access in Syria. With “the whole world watching,” the Syrian people rely on the Internet to broadcast the violence exploding around them all over the country.

Photo by Syria Freedom (FreedomHouse2) via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.

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