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In any US-Syria conflict, cyberweapons could fly in both directions (+video)

Syria's cyberwar capabilities may be modest, but its allies and sympathizers – including Russia and Iran – could pose a more formidable cyber threat to the US, experts say. 

By Staff writer / September 6, 2013

A Lebanese pro-Syrian regime supporter, with her hands painted in red to symbolize blood, attends a demonstration against a possible military strike in Syria, near the US Embassy in Awkar, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday.

Hussein Malla/AP

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Cyberattacks to neutralize Syrian targets, such as its anti-aircraft radar systems, are likely be part of any US-led effort to bomb or assault the Assad regime. Yet Syria and its sympathizers are equally likely to launch retaliatory cyberstrikes against US targets, say experts in cyberconflict.

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The US has had a cyber bead drawn on Syria for well over a year now, plenty long enough to infiltrate and compromise key Syrian military systems, several experts say. But to what degree the US will use that capability is far from clear, especially since it might not be needed to accomplish its key goals.

Still, many experts say it is quite likely cyberweapons will be launched. Some even suggest using them would be a good idea, adding the US should tell the world what is happening so it can be shown that such weapons can be used responsibly without killing people.

“There’s this mystique about cyberweapons – but nobody’s ever died from a cyberattack,” says Jason Healey director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council, an international diplomacy think tank in Washington. “Here the US has the opportunity not only to show how cyberweapons can be utilized responsibly under the laws of war ... [but also to] display how such weapons are more humanitarian than bombs that kill people.”

Michael Clarke, director-general of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London, says it’s clear any conflict with Syria is going to have a major cyber component.

“Cyberwarfare would likely play a more prominent role in an intervention in Syria than in any conflict to date,” he wrote in an analysis last year. “Cyber techniques are anonymous, deniable, inexpensive, increasingly effective, and comparatively risk-free, certainly in terms of own casualties. This makes them attractive in this highly complex, precarious, and fraught situation.”

Syria’s own offensive cyber capabilities are believed to be quite limited, including those of the Syrian Electronic Army hacktivist group it supports. In recent years the SEA has targeted websites of news media perceived as critical of Syria. Last month the hacktivist group knocked The New York Times site down for a day.

Knocking down websites is considered more of a nuisance than a threat to the US or its operations. Yet anti-American hacktivists worldwide could support Syria and its SEA. Add to that the possibility that Syria’s nation-state allies could join in – with unpredictable results.

“A cyberattack against the US from Syria is a significant area of concern that we need to be prepared for,” says Frank J. Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The US government is doubtless sending warnings to operators of US critical infrastructure, such as the power grid, to be on guard for cyberattacks, he and others say.

Yet if Syria’s capabilities alone are modest, some Syrian allies with much more formidable offensive cyberwar capabilities – such as Russia and Iran – are far more dangerous cyber foes. Any cyberbattle that manages to draw in either of those nations could become suddenly much more dangerous for the US, these experts say.

“The Syrians clearly don’t have the capabilities some nations have,” Dr. Cilluffo says. “But what they lack in capability they make up for in intent. They can rent or buy capability. Obviously the level of escalation changes if Iran, Hezbollah, or Russia come into the fray.”

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