Syrian rebels, seeking international funds, said to pirate each other’s battle videos

December 3, 2012

In the fractured world of Syria’s armed opposition, competition for status and resources is fierce — so fierce that some groups are said to be pirating footage of others’ military operations to boost their own profile.

One young activist recalls being asked by a group to document its attack on a regime position in northern Syria earlier this year.

He took footage of the tank the fighters captured, holding the camera steady even as what sounded like gunfire reverberated in the background, and then uploaded it. A short while later, he was shocked to find the same footage appearing on the Internet, but with the superimposed logo of another military coalition.

“I compromised my own life to film it, and they took it!” the activist said.

His is one of a number of accounts suggesting that some rebel groups are misusing video to make themselves appear more active and successful than they really are, skewing the distribution of resources and making it harder for outsiders to accurately evaluate the forces on the ground.

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The stories also underscore the fragmentation of the armed opposition as a newly formed coalition of Syrian opposition groups struggles to establish authority over a rebellion that is unfolding faster than the speed of diplomacy.

In some areas, rebel groups are cooperating, and some reporting suggests that smaller groups have been allowing larger groups to take credit for their videos in exchange for supplies. But other stories indicate that at least some groups are having their work claimed by others without their consent.

The coalition is hoping to create and administer a much-needed centralized funding mechanism for the rebels. But precisely because one has not existed until now, even if it succeeds in attracting more money from the international community to use as an incentive, it will have an uphill struggle in persuading groups on the ground to give up their autonomy.

At the moment, although some resource pooling is taking place, individual rebel groups or coalitions generally have to secure their own backing, and many rely on informal networks of wealthy expatriate Syrians living in the Gulf.

Donors want to give to units that are relevant on the ground, and videos of operations, uploaded on the battalions’ YouTube channels and Facebook pages, have become one of the most effective ways for rebel groups to persuade potential funders that they are worth the investment.

Videos also strengthen a group’s claim to the limited supplies of weapons donated to the cause.

But as the activist’s story indicates, the system is susceptible to manipulation. “We have seen a lot of fake videos just to collect the money,” says Abu Tarek, a military commander from the central province of Hama.

The scramble for funds became tougher as the year went on, Abu Tarek says, with his own supporters dropping their contributions by a half. “They thought it would all be over in a few months,” he explains.

In such a precarious funding environment, with so little accountability, having documented evidence of operations on the ground is everything. Or as Tarek bluntly puts it, if there’s no video, “there’s no money.”

The problem is that it is easy for groups to take advantage of others’ achievements.

A defected general in southern Turkey, who did not want to give his name, says that one group arrived at a military base in northern Syria a few days after another group had taken it from regime forces and had shot footage as if they were the liberators.

“The people filming are just doing it to make money,” he said. “Who has time in a battle to film?”

According to Asher Berman, a U.S.-based researcher who has been tracking rebels’ use of social media, it has become “pretty common” for the larger rebel groups to simply superimpose their own logo onto footage of operations taken by other organizations.

Not all rebel groups have encountered the problem but those that have are sufficiently concerned to try to make their videos more difficult to plagiarize. Abu Ganas, an activist who worked in IT before the uprising, now acts as a kind of video consultant to rebel groups.

“I tell them to use the place — to talk about the place and the time,” he explains. “Sometimes I put a soundtrack on, but it’s better to have a live operation.”

Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the chaotic system of rebel financing, “without a clearing house, without centralization, without a professional allocation of funds and examination of needs” is inevitably going to result in such manipulations.

“[Donors] are people working in small networks, and once they start funding they feel they have ownership over this or that group; it’s not that difficult to fool them,” he said.

— Financial Times

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