Communications under surveillance
The conflict raging in in Syria is characterized for its extreme brutality. For over six years now, the most terrible weapons of war have torn the country apart, with innocent civilians being the primary victims. The war, however, is not only waged on the country’s ground and in its skies. Since 2011, the Syrian authorities have been employing increasingly sophisticated technologies to watch over citizens or even block their access to communications entirely.
Before 2000, Syria neither possessed any mobile nor any Internet networks. But upon his rise to power, president Bashar al-Assad launched what he called an "information technology revolution,” licensing the two telecommunications companies Syriatel and MTN.
Since 2011, the Syrian authorities have employed increasingly sophisticated technologies to watch over citizens and even entirely block their access to communications.
From the outset, state authorities have tightly controlled and closely monitored communications in the country. Syria’s governmental regulatory body, the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE), also serves as the country’s primary ISP, while private ISPs must connect through government-controlled technical infrastructure. Moreover, independent satellite connections are banned and the law requires all cybercafés to monitor and record user activity. Representative of the government’s grip on telecommunications is the fact that Syriatel is owned by Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf.
Even before the conflict, censorship and surveillance were routine. Since 2011, however, the government has increasingly used telecommunications as part of its war against any opposition. Authorities are using technologies secretly obtained from Europe and America to spy on user activity and block access. For example, a series of leaked documents obtained by Bloomberg revealed that a government unit known as Branch 225 ordered Syriatel and MTN to filter and block all text messages containing certain terms or phrases.
Communications blackout = lives at risk
For areas outside regime control, including Aleppo, Idlib, and Eastern Ghouta, the government has simply cut off all access to mobile and Internet networks. This has forced residents of these areas to rely on walkie-talkies or satellite connections, both of which are insecure and easily traced—something highlighted by the targeted bombings against media centres, as occurred in the killing of journalist Marie Colvin.
More broadly, the lack of telecommunications means that the services necessary to sustain the population in these areas cannot function properly. So it’s not just activists or opposition members that are targeted, but all Syrians. Before the escalation of the conflict forced their withdrawal from the country, the UN and other humanitarian agencies identified the lack of telecommunications as a key operational constraint on their ability to provide assistance to those most in need. Though international organizations have long since pulled out of the country due to the intensity of the conflict, the coordination issues that once plagued them continue to haunt the local organizations that remain. Providing humanitarian aid, development assistance, and basic services, local organizations mean the difference between life and death for countless people inside Syria. But without telecommunications, their ability to work is severely hampered.
Surviving in Eastern Ghouta
Located just to the east of Damascus, Eastern Ghouta is one of the hardest hit areas in Syria. Under siege since 2013, it has suffered from continuous and indiscriminate shelling, sniper fire, and aerial bombardment since the start of the conflict. For a population trapped under siege, the humanitarian situation is dire and healthcare needs are a top priority. Yet, despite the risks and logistical difficulties, a handful of medical organizations are active in the region to respond to the frequent emergencies thrown up by the conflict and work to alleviate the suffering. Collectively, these organisations run multiple field hospitals and clinics, operate dozens of ambulances, and manage hundreds of medical staff.
For these organizations to operate effectively, they need to be able coordinate. Emergencies must be identified and prioritized, ambulances must be directed, the levels of available staff at clinics must be monitored, medical inventory must be managed, and the people living in these areas must have a way to call for help. Without telecommunications, these things cannot be done.
In Eastern Ghouta—as elsewhere in Syria—a lack of an independent telecommunications service needlessly costs innocent lives.
Early on in the conflict, medical organizations in Eastern Ghouta were left with little choice but to rely on the communication facilities of armed groups, something that threatened the independence and neutrality of their activities, while simultaneously placing them at severe personal risk. Since they were not designed for medical purposes, these facilities were woefully inadequate and were often unavailable, as the armed groups prioritized their use for their own forces.
Simply put, in Eastern Ghouta—as elsewhere in Syria—a lack of an independent telecommunications service needlessly costs innocent lives.
Coordinating Eastern Ghouta's medical services securely
In September 2012, Roia set out to help remedy this situation. Working alongside the provincial council and with the support of the European Endowment for Democracy, Roia successfully established an area-wide system of secure and efficient telecommunications for the medical organizations of Eastern Ghouta to use freely.
The system consists of a radio-frequency base station, an emergency medical dispatch centre, and a wireless IP communication facility. The RF tower allows medical organizations to receive calls from the public and emergency service teams. Calls are then forwarded to the dispatch centre, which coordinates, manages, and dispatches the appropriate resources and teams to each emergency. This is done with the aid of the wireless IP facility, which permits the dispatch centre to communicate with the hospitals and clinics in the area, working out which facility has available staff, beds, and appropriate treatments.
The conflict in Syria has caused the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, and the primary victims are civilians. The country’s people desperately need assistance and the provision service to meet their basic needs; this not only includes medical care, but also necessities such as food, shelter, education, and sanitation. These things require resources, manpower, and money, but they also require coordination—something only possible with safe and effective communication.