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Syria and the social netwar 2011-2013

Syria is Oxford University Press’s Place of the Year, and to call attention to the sociopolitical turmoil in the country, we present a brief excerpt from Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen. This is a powerful study of the important role technology, particularly social media, plays in the war zone in Syria.

As mentioned earlier, the war in Syria is going on as I write, and its outcome—after two years of fighting, a million refugees crowded into squalid camps in neighboring countries, millions of displaced persons within Syria, and eighty thousand killed and counting—remains in doubt. Syria represents a huge escalation in violence, scale, and scope over previous uprisings in the Arab Awakening, as far beyond the conflict in Libya as Libya was beyond the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. To do justice to the Syrian uprising would require a full-length study, and I don’t propose to discuss it in detail here—only to highlight aspects that are directly relevant to our examination of future conflict environments.

The Syrian war began, like the other uprisings, as a series of peaceful protests. These first broke out in the southern city of Daraa on March 15, 2011, a few days before NATO began its intervention in Libya. Daraa was experiencing significant stress: decades of neglect and mismanaged resources contributed to an unprecedented and severe drought, and there had been am influx of population into the city’s outlying districts over the past few months. Syria has lost half its available water supply over the past decade, in part because of mismanagement and urban growth, in part because of changing weather and rainfall patterns. As a result, water is rationed in all of Syria’s cities, the water system in most towns is operating right at the limit of its capacity, and disturbances in water supply can have immediate destabilizing effects. As noted in Chapter 1 , water supply is one of the most challenging aspects of urban governance, and the influx of a large number of displaced people, seeking water, into a city already rationing its water supply represents one of the most severe possible stresses on a city’s metabolism. In Syria’s case, this was an added burden on top of the demands of roughly 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, many of whom moved to the Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood south of Damascus as the Iraq war worsened after 2004. “Although political repression may have fueled a steady undercurrent of dissent over the last few decades, the regime’s failure to put in place economic measures to alleviate the effects of drought was a critical driver in propelling such massive mobilizations of dissent . . . Syrian cities [served] as junctures where the grievances of displaced rural migrants and disenfranchised urban residents meet and come to question the very nature and distribution of power.”

The immediate trigger for the protests was the arrest and beating of three teenage boys, inspired by protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, who tagged a building with anti-regime graffiti. Several hundred people rallied to demand the boys’ release, and the protests turned violent aft er security forces fired on the crowd. Riot police killed more than four hundred protestors, particularly targeting mourners at protestors’ funerals, in the first three months of clashes in Daraa alone. They attempted to seal off Daraa from the outside world, but as in the other uprisings, thousands of demonstrators across the country subsequently took to the streets, and the demonstrations quickly spread to towns across Syria in March and April 2011. Activists used cellphones and social media to connect with each other and with international supporters, and human networks linked urban dwellers in Damascus and Aleppo (Syria’s two largest cities) to people in rural areas experiencing unrest. By early May, hundreds had been killed or detained in massive riots, and the army had deployed tanks and thousands of troops in Homs and Daraa to suppress what was now morphing into an armed uprising.

Pro-regime militias, known in Syria as shabiha , “ghosts,” committed massacres in several towns, and secret police arrested (and in many cases tortured, killed, or “disappeared”) dissidents across the country as the conflict escalated in May and June. 145 The shabiha , in a pattern that mirrors the other examples we have explored, were drawn largely from gangs of marginalized street youth, criminal networks, and organized thugs who operated in poor, marginalized “garrison districts” in Syrian cities and often had close patron-client relationships with regime officials. As the uprising escalated, the shabiha became a key irregular auxiliary force, which the regime regularly employed in order to intimidate the population.

Kafranbel Local Council, Syria. Photo via Caerus Associates network. Used with permission.
Kafranbel Local Council, Syria. Photo via Caerus Associates network. Used with permission.

Learning from the experience of the Egyptian and Libyan regimes, the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad quickly offered a series of compromises and concessions, but none of these offers to relax regime restrictions and introduce limited democratic freedoms was enough to appease the protestors. Assad initially left the Internet and phone networks up and quickly mobilized an Iranian-supported Electronic Army to harass activists, hack opposition websites, and undermine anti-regime cohesion by spreading confusing messages. More sophisticated than the government in Egypt, the Syrian regime had created an extremely effective system of wiretapping, cellphone interception, and Internet surveillance, and so the security forces’ instinct at first was to allow unrestricted use of these tools as a way of gathering information on the protestors. When protestors began using cellphones to post updates on Twitter, however, and using cellphone cameras to gather and broadcast images of regime brutality, this caught the security services by surprise, forcing a rethink.

Over the preceding decade, there’d been an explosion in digital connectivity and information access in Syria. Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s dictator from 1971 until his death in 2000, had enforced extremely tight restrictions on information and connectivity—allowing no international media, satellite television, cellphones, or Internet access whatsoever. However, his son and successor, Bashar al-Assad, was something of a computer geek, taking an active role as the head of the Syrian Computer Society after his brother Basel died in 1994. On his accession as president in 2000, Bashar al-Assad initially made efforts to modernize Syria, tolerating a limited amount of political dissent during a short-lived period known as the Damascus Spring, and opening up electronic connectivity to ordinary Syrians, to include satellite and cable television, cellphone networks, and open Internet access.

Despite occasional crackdowns—the regime banned YouTube, for example, in April 2007 after the site uploaded a clip of President Assad’s wife, Asma, with her underwear exposed in a gust of wind—Syrians generally had excellent access to digital connectivity, and Internet penetration and cellphone usage rates in Syria were vastly higher than in any other country affected by the Arab Awakening. According to World Bank data, between 2002 and 2012, Syrian cellphone usage rates “shot up by 2,347 percent (by contrast, they increased by 83 percent in the US during the same time period). This was almost double that of similarly repressive environments in Egypt and Tunisia at the time. What is perhaps even more incredible is Syria’s Internet penetration growth rates, which shot up by 883 percent, greater than Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia (for comparison, Internet penetration only increased by 27 percent in the US during the same time period).”

But by June 4, 2011, the regime was forced to suspend Internet access in an attempt to stanch the flow of damaging images and video clips documenting regime brutality, which were being posted on the Internet and broadcast on satellite television. Another reason for the ban on land based Internet may have been that this enabled the regime’s security services to detect who was still using satellite-based Internet in the country, and thus to locate and target dissidents and guerrilla groups. As in the other uprisings, when the regime banned the Internet, Syrians improvised mesh networks, smuggled videos out to Lebanon to be uploaded there, and jury-rigged their own satellite uplinks (a traditional pastime—under Hafez al-Assad’s ban, the Syrian army had run a lucrative side business in black market sales of satellite dishes so that people could access banned satellite television channels). At the same time, international activists (including Anonymous, once again, with #OpSyria) and a network of diaspora supporters and social media networks stepped into the breach.

By July, cities across the country—including Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, Idlib, Homs, and Hama, together representing almost 40 percent of Syria’s population of just under 21 million—were experiencing violent unrest. Protestors were arming themselves, guerrilla groups were forming, and the regime had lost control of many outlying towns and cities. As in conflict in Libya, a civilian democracy movement was emerging in parallel with a diverse armed resistance that included jihadist groups, secular nationalists, ethnic separatists, military defectors, and tribal groups. On the ground in Syria, leaders of armed groups rapidly marginalized and overshadowed the unarmed pro-democracy movement as the violence spread, emphasizing the importance (which we noted in the last chapter) of coercive means as the underlying enabler for competitive control over populations: armed groups could always outcompete unarmed groups at the coercive end of the spectrum of control, and thus rapidly became dominant on the ground.

At the same time, liberated areas formed district and neighborhood councils to administer their areas and provide essential services once the regime had withdrawn. Relations between the armed resistance and these local administrative councils were oft en complex and fractious, with armed groups trying to co-opt or intimidate the councils, and civilians trying to manipulate armed groups to further their own interests and minimize risk. The situation stabilized somewhat after September 25, when military defectors (many of whom were Sunni officers of the Syrian army) formally announced an armed insurrection against the regime and formed the Free Syrian Army. A week later, on October 2, civilian opposition groups formed the Syrian National Council, similar to Libya’s National Transition Council, and sought to impose order on a chaotic set of military and political actors opposing the regime. In this effort, the rebel movement was (consciously or unconsciously) acting to create the kind of wide-spectrum competitive control system that we discussed in Chapter 3 , adding persuasive and administrative capabilities to their existing coercive capabilities in order to give them more resiliency and a stronger capacity to control territory and population.

David Kilcullen is the author of the highly acclaimed Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla, The Accidental Guerrilla and Counterinsurgency. A former soldier and diplomat, he served as a senior advisor to both General David H. Petraeus and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent years he has focused on fieldwork to support aid agencies, non-government organizations and local communities in conflict and disaster-affected regions, and on developing new ways to think about complex conflicts in highly networked urban environments.Read his previous blog posts.

The Oxford Atlas Place of the Year 2013 is Syria. The Oxford Atlas Place of the Year is a location — from street corners to planets — around the globe (and beyond) which has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date and judged to reflect the important discoveries, conflicts, challenges, and successes of that particular year. Learn more about Place of the Year on the OUPblog.

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