Can U.S. ‘communication kits’ help Syrians get around the Internet blackout?

November 30, 2012

Abu Mahmud, a 20-year-old technician, works on a laptop in Aleppo, Syria. (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/GettyImages)

One way that some Syrians may be able to circumvent the total Internet blackout that has cut the entire country off from the Web since Thursday morning is with U.S.-provided "communication kits." State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the U.S. has provided 2,000 kits that would allow Syrians to continue communicating with one another and the outside world, and largely outside of state monitoring. The kits include a laptop, satellite receiver and 50-foot cable.

The Washington Post's Greg Miller investigated the spread of the communication kits this August. The good news is that it appears the kits could do some real good for Syrians, assuming that they found their way into Syrian hands. The bad news is that this may not actually be a safe assumption, slowed by bureaucracy, the fog of war and an odd requirement that anyone who wants a kit must travel to Turkey for a training session. Here are some of the relevant snips from Miller's report:

Seeking to bolster its support to opposition groups, the State Department recently established a program to provide equipment and instruction to anti-Assad activists. But the program requires participants to travel to Istanbul for training before they are given any gear.

U.S. officials and Syrian nationals involved in the program said that it is slated to expand in the coming months but that fewer than two dozen laptop computers and satellite modem kits had been distributed so far. . . .

Satellite connections are no substitute for weapons in a conflict that the United Nations estimates has killed at least 18,000 people and plunged Syria into civil war. But activists said communications gear is nevertheless essential to the survival of opposition groups.

The equipment enables activists to coordinate even during ­government-imposed Internet blackouts, providing warnings to civilians about approaching Syrian troops or sharing locations of makeshift medical facilities. . . .

U.S. officials said Syrian opposition groups may be unaware of how much gear came from the United States because it was largely distributed through nongovernmental organizations. . . .

[The Office of Syrian Opposition Support] has had 18 trainees go through its two-day instructional course on using satellite kits, which include a laptop, a portable satellite receiver and a 50-meter cable to run a connection from a rooftop to a basement or bunker.

“We were taught when we hear jet fighters to turn off the devices,” as well as using code words and encryption, said one of the recent trainees, a 20-year-old student from Aleppo University who asked to be identified as Abeer. Her only complaint was that her package included “only 100 megabytes” of access to satellite service, barely enough to cover a few sessions on Skype, although OSOS officials said she could receive more.

Syria's Internet blackout -- which some observers worry could be a precursor to a major campaign by the Syrian military -- demonstrates the potentially major role that these communication kits could play in aiding opposition figures there. That could be a sign of the United States doing some good in Syria, despite frequent criticism and charges of inaction, unless of course it turns out that the kits are being held back by bureaucracy or other hurdles.

This being Syria, though, it's difficult to know for sure whether or not the U.S.-purchased communication tools are making their way into the country, particularly if they're being dispersed by "nongovernmental organizations," as U.S. officials told Miller.

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Max Fisher · November 30, 2012