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James Denselow

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Space Age Intervention in Syria

Posted: 06/08/11 11:36 AM ET

The protests in Syria are entering a new phase, with reports of the resistance taking up arms in parts of the country against the security forces and the government promising a 'decisive' response. The West appears impotent to prevent further slaughter. However high-tech tools could expose Syria's brutal underbelly and bring a halt to the crackdown.

What has been clear since the start of the protests in Syria is that whatever the government is doing, they're not keen for the rest of the world to see. In contrast to the fixed camera positions that looked upon the tens of thousands of protestors and inactive tanks in Egypt's Tahrir Square, the Assad regime quickly cleansed the country of international press and has since embarked on a cat and mouse game against web based communications.

Sky News recently bemoaned the lack of access to Syria stating that "we cannot test it (stories of atrocities) because of the lack of visas. That in turn suggests the government has something to hide." Journalists are banned from the country, forced to write under pseudo names or in the case of Al Jazeera's Dorothy Parvaz and the Times's Martin Fletcher, arrested. Campaigners have claimed that people found with satellite phones face an 11 year jail sentence

Meanwhile in cyberspace, the Syrian authorities have resorted to tracking ISPs, setting up fake Facebook groups, engaging in Twitter hashtag wars and in some cases, shutting down large section of the country's internet.

Observers hold very real concerns therefore that a repeat of the 1982 Hama massacre could be on the cards. Remember it was the ambushing and killing of a Syrian army patrol in 1982 that led to Hama being largely destroyed and between 10,000 and 20,000 Syrians dying; the massive discrepancy in the numbers a reflection of the paucity of information emanating from the country.

The answer to the West's current impotence could lie 400 miles above the Earth's surface.

While the US is unwilling to lead the international community in intervening in Syria, it has the resources to make a real difference through more creative means. Along with its allies, Washington is likely already using a host of high-tech surveillance techniques to monitor events in Syria. With surveillance satellites the size of school buses orbiting the Earth, the US could release images and footage to the international media that capture the Syrian security forces in action against their own people.

In his recent speech on developments across the region, President Obama praised the role of satellite television and the Internet as providing "a window into the wider world." Today instead of relying on Barada television to beam images into the country, the White House could endorse the use of technology to beam desperately needed images of what is going on out of the country.

What difference would this make? Well the reason that the Syrians are so desperate to avoid their actions being observed is that it fatally undermines their short to medium term legitimacy in ways that unverified reports that can be dismissed as 'conspiracies' don't. A good example of this standard line was a Syrian Interior Ministry official telling state television recently that reports of Syrian forces killing citizens were "totally false... these reports are part of a campaign of incitement and lies against Syria".

Technologically advanced surveillance techniques, ranging from satellites to drones launched from the Med, could allow to the West to influence events on the ground whilst avoiding a commitment to more drastic and unpopular forms of action. Images matter and can define the narrative of events. It was no coincidence that WikiLeaks chose to release the video of an Apache helicopter firing at a crowd to announce the leaks of the Iraq Papers, likewise the YouTube footage of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan defined the Iranian revolts.

Releasing surveillance data to the global media is both a non-aggressive and responsible means of trying to hold Syria's actions to account. Powerful images and footage of brutalities being committed will make it a lot harder for Syria to keep allies like Russia and China from standing by them, as well as providing ammunition for countries like France that are looking to hold Syria for account at the UN Security Council. If used correctly these tools could make clear to the Syrian authorities that light can and will be shined on their dark secrets.

 

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