The Syrian civil war has played out with unnerving intimacy for viewers of YouTube. Shaky videos delivered images of dead children, the bloodied walls after a massacre and, just this week, the fiery streak of an opposition missile destroying a government helicopter.
Analysts said the image of that attack, which highlighted the opposition’s rising military capabilities, may have prompted Assad to cut off communications after months of allowing information to flow with relative freedom.
The government had reason to do so. Its forces used the Internet for some routine communications. Easy access to the Web also helped the government spy on opposition forces, which relied on such technology to communicate. Social media sites, meanwhile, were popular with civilians, and continued access to the sites lent a veneer of normalcy in Damascus, the capital.
Yet most blamed Assad for the Internet shutdown. The main telecommunications cables are controlled by the government-owned Syrian Telecommunications Establishment, and all of the country’s Internet providers and cellphone companies rely on the data it provides. Shutting down the flow of information, analysts say, is easy.
“It’s a sign that the regime is going to take its gloves off,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow and Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re going to make sure they’re the only ones who can communicate, or at least they are going to try.”
Opposition forces, however, have grown savvy at distributing images from the fighting to keep their cause visible to the world. Rebels operating near international borders, such as with Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon, have access to cellphone signals emanating from those countries. Governments backing the Syrian opposition have sent thousands of satellite phones to the rebels; the U.S. State Department says it has sent 2,000 pieces of communications equipment, which could assist in distributing videos even if the Internet remains shut down.
“Syria is going to be an excellent test” of such initiatives, said Andrew McLaughlin, a former top policy official at Google who also worked as a White House technology adviser. “People have been preparing for this day. . . . I’ll be glued to my screen for the next 24 to 48 hours to see if that did any good.”
Dehghanpisheh reported from Beirut. Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut also contributed reporting.