Tuesday 12 December 2017

Video: Dispatch from Syria as civil war plays out in the digital age

Jason O’Brien in Idleb, Syria

WHEN government soldiers burst down the front door, one of the first things they demand to see is every mobile phone.

The women, they warn, will be shot dead if a single hidden phone is later found.

With the traditional media under the control of the state and international journalists facing huge security and logistical difficulties if they attempt to report from the country, the rebel side is fighting back through the internet – using social media to share news and organise opposition.

It means mobile phones are targeted by the regime, who are searching for compromising photographs, Tweets or Facebook groups that might help identify rebels or their sympathisers.

It also means that rebel soldiers, sympathisers and ordinary Syrians with no immediately obvious political preference are often reluctant to be identified – and are especially wary of being photographed or taped on video if it is not on their terms.

And with many of those rebel fighters armed with automatic weapons, it means that those wielding a camera are at least as cautious about using it.

Yesterday, the Irish Independent was at a river between Turkey and Syria that has an improvised system that allows people to illegally skip across. We were told in no uncertain terms that we couldn’t identify those involved, or film the haphazard crossing in a makeshift pontoon.

Later, in the rebel-held town of Harem in northern Syria, rebel soldiers were more comfortable in their surroundings and allowed some footage of them with their guns, setting up positions, relaxing and touring Harem Castle, the scene of a bloody battle just two months ago which – according to some unverified reports – ended in the execution of a large number of Syrian Army soldiers.

The green light for video in Harem yesterday was given by General  Abdul Mouneem Al Sabey, the leader of a troop of approximately 400 soldiers, most of whom were on the front line of the battle against the regime in the cities of Idleb or Aleppo, both less than 60km away.

A charismatic man with an easy small and a small Glock pistol, he had a lot of detailed knowledge he was willing to tell – and his fascinating story is detailed in today’s Irish Independent.

“Yes, I have killed people,” he said at one point. “But who killed our country, and hurt our people? I couldn’t stay at home and watch my family get killed.”

But he was more reluctant to speak on camera, even with the aid of a trusted interpreter. He knows, almost certainly, that the regime is getting increasingly clever about finding compromising footage online.

Not so long ago, a British newspaper reported, Syrian government troops at checkpoints would stop cars and ask to see any “Facebooks”, believing they were real books. Now they go straight for the phone, and begin their search, while technology experts trawl the web in an attempt to piece together the secret identities of activists who are passing information. 

With victory a long way off for either side, it is probably wise to be cautious.

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