June 25, 2017

Syria Rebels Find Skype Useful, but Dangers Lurk

When Syria’s Internet service disappeared Thursday, government officials first blamed rebel attacks. Activist groups blamed the government and viewed the blackout as a sign that troops would violently clamp down on rebels.

But having dealt with periodic outages for more than a year, the opposition had anticipated a full shutdown of Syria’s Internet service providers. To prepare, they have spent months smuggling communications equipment like mobile handsets and portable satellite phones into the country.

“We’re very well equipped here,” said Albaraa Abdul Rahman, 27, an activist in Saqba, a poor suburb 20 minutes outside Damascus. He said he was in touch with an expert in Homs who helped connect his office and 10 others like it in and around Damascus.

Using the connection, the activists in Saqba talked to rebel fighters on Skype and relayed to overseas activists details about clashes with government forces. A video showed the rebels’ bare-bones room, four battery backups that could power a laptop for eight hours and a generator set up on a balcony.

For months, rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad have used Skype, a peer-to-peer Internet communication system, to organize and talk to outside news organizations and activists. A few days ago, Jad al-Yamani, an activist in Homs, sent a message to rebel fighters that tanks were moving toward a government checkpoint.

He notified the other fighters so that they could go observe the checkpoint. “Through Skype you know how the army moves or can stop it,” Mr. Yamani said.

On Friday, Dawoud Sleiman, 39, a member of the antigovernment Ahrar al-Shamal Battalion, part of the Free Syrian Army, reached out to other members of the rebel group. They were set up at the government’s Wadi Aldaif military base in Idlib, a province near the Turkish border that has seen heavy fighting, and connected to Skype via satellite Internet service.

Mr. Sleiman, who is based in Turkey, said the Free Syrian Army stopped using cellphone networks and land lines months ago and instead relies almost entirely on Skype. “Brigade members communicate through the hand-held devices,” he said.

This week rebels posted an announcement via Skype that called for the arrest of the head of intelligence in Idlib, who is accused of killing five rebels. “A big financial prize will be offered to anyone who brings the head of this guy,” the message read. “One of our brothers abroad has donated the cash.”

If the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were Twitter Revolutions, then Syria is becoming the Skype Rebellion. To get around a near-nationwide Internet shutdown, rebels have armed themselves with mobile satellite phones and dial-up modems.

In many cases, relatives and supporters living outside Syria bought the equipment and had it smuggled in, mostly through Lebanon and Turkey.

That equipment has allowed the rebels to continue to communicate almost entirely via Skype with little interruption, despite the blackout. “How the government used its weapons against the revolution, that is how activists use Skype,” Mr. Abdul Rahman said.

“We haven’t seen any interruption in the way Skype is being used,” said David Clinch, an editorial director of Storyful, a group that verifies social media posts for news organizations, including The New York Times (Mr. Clinch has served as a consultant for Skype).

Mr. Assad, who once fashioned himself as a reformer and the father of Syria’s Internet, has largely left the country’s access intact during the 20-month struggle with rebels. The government appeared to abandon that strategy on Thursday, when most citizens lost access. Some Syrians could still get online using service from Turkey. On Friday, Syrian officials blamed technical problems for the cutoff.

The shutdown is only the latest tactic in the escalating technology war waged in Arab Spring countries.

But several technology experts warned that the use of the Internet by rebels in Syria, even those relying on Skype, could leave them vulnerable to government surveillance.

Liam Stack contributed reporting from New York; Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/world/middleeast/syrian-rebels-turn-to-skype-for-communications.html?partner=rss&emc=rss