The U.S. isn’t bombing Syria yet. But it is providing tech support to the rebels.

September 3, 2013

Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Dieter Nagl/AFP/GETY IMAGES)

The United States hasn't decided whether to launch airstrikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But the Obama administration long ago decided to provide the rebels with another form of assistance: hardware and software to help the rebels communicate more effectively and evade government censorship.

In fact, while the White House authorized the CIA to help arm some moderate rebels battling the Assad regime, it hasn't done so yet. So the most significant aid given to the rebels by the United States so far may actually be the influx of communications equipment, censorship and monitoring circumvention software, and technical training sent their way by the State Department.

In April 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced $25 million in non-lethal aid, including communications equipment, to moderate rebel forces. Sources at the time told CNN the aid would include "satellite communication equipment, as well as hardware and software systems to help the opposition evade government censors." The circumvention technology could be especially helpful to activists in Syria because the Internet in the state is heavily monitored. Sometimes that monitoring is done with technology made by U.S. companies, although President Obama issued an executive order blocking the export or sale of that type of equipment to Syria and Iran in late April 2012.

The communications aid appears to have had a rough start, with rebels complaining they did not receive the assistance they had been promised. But the satellite communications equipment turned out to be of particular importance when Syria experienced nationwide Internet outages in November 2012. By that time, State Department representatives claimed, they had provided some 2,000 communications kits to opposition members.

But the technology alone is only part of the package. Time reported in June 2012 that the State Department's Internet Freedom grants program has also been providing media-technology training through nonprofits such as the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and Freedom House. Although the Internet Freedom grants program was initially funded to help provide the Chinese religious group Falun Gong with technology it could use to circumvent the great firewall of China, it was later expanded to include training for activists in other areas where online freedom was limited and to support the development of software and technology to help those activists.

Some grantees reportedly help train Syrian activists and rebels to use the Internet to share news about what's happening on the ground. Other programs provide advice about best practices for secure communications, including using encryption, avoiding malware and taking batteries out of phones to thwart location tracking.

It's unclear what the next steps will be for Syria. But at the end of the conflict, the United States will be able to say that some of its first steps involved helping rebels and activists communicate about the crisis with each other and the outside world.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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