In Aleppo, Syrian rebels wage war – with an Internet connection

Combating the constant text messages from regime forces declaring them terrorists, rebels fight an information campaign, sending images of Aleppo's death and destruction worldwide.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Antigovernment Syrian media activists set up an illegal internet satellite to upload photos and video of the destruction by government shelling and bombardment of areas controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo, Syria, on October 22.

The Syrian father thought he had enough dangers to contend with in his contested city of Aleppo. As darkness fell, sniper fire cracked repeatedly along the street outside. Explosions reverberated across the city.

Two nearby bombs that afternoon had cut off all electricity, so he was standing in the dark at the door of his apartment, children clustered around his feet, when his new neighbors arrived, working their way up the interior stairwell with the light of their mobile phones – and bearing a satellite dish.

But this wasn’t just another family, traumatized by three months of fighting here between the Assad regime and the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). It was a small group of rebel media activists, college-aged and determined to use photographs and video to show the result of indiscriminate artillery and aircraft bombardment in Aleppo.

Making the link to the outside world is about more than surfing the Web for the rebels. Satellite gear and computers have become a critical component of the effort to challenge President Bashar al-Assad and the regime – and the widespread misperception inside Syria about extent of their reach into people's lives.

The activists were excited as they filed into their dark apartment. “Internet, Internet!” chanted one, speaking about the illegal high-speed connection they were about to create. Onto the dusty floor of the small front room they threw down cardboard boxes of cables and tools, the modems and laptop that would soon connect them to the world.

For the Syrian father, that link was one danger too many. Almost immediately he knocked on the activists' door.

“There are many children here, you don’t want to be responsible for their deaths,” he told the young men. “I am with you, my son is in the Free Syrian Army, but….”

One electronics engineer stopped assembling the dish and came to the door, explaining that the signal blended among many others in Aleppo and was indistinguishable to government forces. They had no problem with the satellite Internet at previous locations for three months, he said.

“We have more knowledge than you in these things, and we work very secretly,” the engineer reassured the man, their faces lit at the doorway by mobile phones. Then he pointed out what is obvious from the pulverization of entire districts of Aleppo, where rebel commanders now claim to control more than 60 percent of the ground: “The government may shoot this place randomly any day, anyway.”

High civilian casualties

Neither side has dramatically moved any of Aleppo’s several frontlines in recent weeks. Instead, daily and nightly artillery bombardment continues of civilian areas – a bread-line bombing two days ago left 20 dead – punctuated by MiG jet fighters using heavy, unguided bombs. By all accounts, including those of hospital staff, the majority of victims on this side of the lines are not rebel soldiers, but civilians.

The regime has steadfastly insisted that all revolutionaries and their supporters are “terrorists” that will be stamped out. Every day, text messages are sent, at least to all mobile-phone lines in Aleppo and Idlib Province to the west, warning citizens to expose the rebels and promising a return to calm.

The “honest among you” are praised in Aleppo and Idlib, because “the terrorists are collapsing and your correct thinking is going to make security and safety return to your cities," one text message reads. Another: “To all who carry weapons against the government, don’t link your fate to those who came with weapons from outside Syria, and don’t let them kill your loved ones, and destroy your home and your country.”

Yet another text portrays government forces as “heroes” who are “crushing the terrorists.”

“They are dreaming, it’s like another world,” says the rebel engineer. “Are we ‘terrorists’? Do we look like terrorists?”

Much of the satellite gear and computers was paid for and sent by the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group of opposition factions based in Turkey, along with other donors, the activists say. And they are not alone – similar media cells work across rebel-held areas, providing real-time images of the destruction that few foreign journalists can reach.

A cheer goes up when they get the satellite dish working: “YouTube!”

Holding flashlights and mobile phones in their teeth, the activists pick up all the computers, batteries, and the satellite modem, all connected with wires, and carry them triumphantly into a back room, safer from the danger of blasts and bullets.

“He does not have the power he talks about,” says the engineer. “For 40 years they terrorize all the people of Syria, and say they have all this power to make people afraid. But it is all lies.”

“That is why the neighbor is afraid,” explains another activist, a literature student. “It got to the point [in the past] where, even if people were sitting privately with family, and said anything against the regime, they would warn each other that ‘the walls have ears.’ ”   

“The regime is so stupid! They can’t find this dish,” says the engineer, as he wrestles into onto the balcony and then checks its alignment with a compass. Other activists watch the computer monitor; everything is plugged into a huge battery for testing.

A friend of the engineer works in the government telecommunications company, and knows that its monitoring abilities are very limited. Hardly any calls are listened to, he says; few can be tracked. 

And while the regime is reported to have received specific electronic assistance in this regard from Iran and Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah – including an ability to pinpoint the source of satellite communications – the sheer volume of mobile-phone traffic from all sides is simply too much to manage.

For four decades, says the engineer, the Assad family “made us have fear. He 100 percent successfully made us afraid of him.”

The neighbor children can be heard singing, chanting, and playing next door. Sometimes they fight with each other. Sometimes they call for their father. Next door, the anti-regime media activists settle onto thin mattresses, plug in a hot plate for tea, and begin their work.  

Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter.

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