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How Syrian opposition bypasses Assad's communication blocks

In the opposition-controlled regions of Syria, activists have established monitoring observatories to track the regime’s movements and coordinate military and humanitarian action.

IDLIB, Syria — The means of communication in Syria have always been limited. After President Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, he sponsored what he called an information technology revolution and licensed two telecommunications companies, Syriatel and MTN. There were no mobile or Internet networks in Syria before 2000.

Syriatel is owned by Rami Makhlouf, Assad's cousin, while MTN Group is a multinational mobile telecommunications company. The Syrian regime thus controlled and was able to tap all wired and wireless Syrian communications. Following the outbreak of the revolution against the ruling regime in March 2011, Assad exploited his domination over the sector. He cut off communications in all regions opposing him or where the Syrian army intended to subjugate to stop any communication between the population and the activists of the opposition.

Abu Mohammed (a pseudonym) is a Syrian fighter with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the countryside of Homs. He told Al-Monitor, “We started using walkie-talkies at the start of our military action. We benefited from the dissident officers' previous experiences in this field. These devices are very useful, and we use them to coordinate with each other, communicate and warn each other of imminent dangers in the absence of any telephone or communication networks.”

Engineer Samir al-Rai from Homs explained to Al-Monitor via Skype how these handheld devices operate. He said, “Walkie-talkies operate on the same system as radios. A central device transmits and receives short-range signals from the walkie-talkie at different frequencies and then retransmits these signals. For example, when a call is made from walkie-talkie 1 on a wave with a specific frequency, the central device identifies the wave and receives the call through a network to be installed on a high place. The central device then retransmits the call to all walkie-talkies operating on this wave. This is how the call reaches everyone holding the device.”

In early 2014, a new means of communication emerged in the opposition-controlled regions: the monitoring observatories. They use the same walkie-talkies, but more openly. Any person can listen. Generally, walkie-talkies are used in a closed network over frequencies that are limited and coded, and not everyone can listen to the conversations.

Ahmad al-Meghlaj, a peace activist opposing Assad’s regime from Idlib, took the initiative in early 2014 to set up a network at a high point in Jabal al-Zawiya in the Idlib countryside to ensure coverage for the city and its surroundings. A particular broadcast frequency is distributed among all of the factions, and this is known as the general broadcast.

Meghlaj speaks all day on the air, broadcasting news about the Syrian military’s movement and progress on the battlefronts. He relays news he receives from private media outlets affiliated with the opposition groups or news he gathers through direct communication with the opposition factions.

Al-Monitor met with Bakri Kaaki, a Syrian opposition official in Turkey who once held an administrative position in the FSA, and asked him about the monitoring observatory. Kaaki said, “It was a great experience, and we benefited from it a lot. It saved many lives. The monitoring post warns us when a fighter jet takes off from Hama Airport in our direction. This gives us 10 minutes, during which we can hunker down and prepare for a possible air raid by the regime. The monitoring post also lifts the spirits of fighters by providing news on the FSA's progress and victories on the battlefronts. It also allows us to access the regime's military communication networks to tap conversations and track air force traffic from the regime’s airports.”

The use of monitoring observatories caught on, and more activists followed suit and established additional posts to spread news. They were set up on towers in various regions not controlled by the regime, such as Idlib, Hama and Aleppo. The monitoring system provides coverage to individual regions, like radio channels. Walkie-talkies proliferated among civilians and street vendors and everyone wishing to follow the news and communicate.

Firas al-Ali, a journalist for Baladi news agency, told Al-Monitor via Skype from the Aleppo countryside, “Most news agency journalists rely on the monitoring system for reporting news, given the fast transmission and in light of the lack of other means of communication in the combat zones. This system saves them the risks of getting killed while covering news on the battlefield. The correspondents for Baladi rely on this system to send news, especially if there is a battle raging in the region they are covering.”

He added, “Sometimes, someone publishes unverified news after receiving false reports through the monitoring system. To avoid such mistakes, we are seeking to assign persons who are known for their credibility. In any case, we do not deny that monitoring systems play an essential role in transmitting field news from the battlefields and even civilian-related news. We often hear transmissions to civilians, informing them of the arrival of food aid or potable water or warning them of upcoming storms.”

After the start of the Russian military operations in Syria Sept. 30, and after Russian forces chose Hmeimim airport in Latakia as a military base, a new problem arose in the monitoring system: the language barrier.

Abu Ahmed (a pseudonym), part of an observatory in Aleppo, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “Before the Russian intervention, we accessed the regime's military communications and were able to learn the destination and timing of the regime's fighter jets. Following the Russian intervention, we encountered a problem related to the use of the Russian language. But we now use interpreters from Russian to Arabic from among students who have studied in Russia or defected officers who went to training camps in Russia.”

During Al-Monitor’s stay in Idlib, the walkie-talkie came in handy. It was connected to the general observatories and allowed the tracking of developments and the movements of the FSA and the regime forces to identify the locations of the battles. There were also conversations between civilians: a man looking for his son, another asking for a pharmacy that opens overnight for emergencies and someone asking for potable water.

Although monitoring observatories are often targeted by air raids, their numbers are increasing. Their operators are aware of this vulnerability and are establishing new ones either underground or away from known towers.

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