Last week Syrians lost access to the Internet for the second time in a month. While the Assad regime claims the lapses were the result of a faulty network link, the evidence suggests that they were deliberate efforts by the government to hamper the opposition’s ability to communicate inside the country and with the outside world.
As American policy makers debate additional measures to pressure President Bashar al-Assad and aid moderate elements of the opposition, they should consider a military cybercampaign to give Syrians the ability to communicate freely online. Doing so would serve our strategic interests, while also demonstrating a principled commitment to Internet freedom.
For example, through the military’s new Cyber Command, we could create a digital “safe haven,” akin to physical safe havens for refugees, by deploying long-distance Wi-Fi technologies along Syria’s borders and in rebel-held areas in coordination with vetted opposition groups. Platforms that enable transmission of Wi-Fi signals over distances of up to 60 miles are already in use in parts of South Asia and other rural markets.
With a guarantee of secure Internet access points, opposition groups would be able to link their terrestrial and wireless networks with those of like-minded groups. This would enable them to reach deeper into the country, giving broad sections of the Syrian populace Internet access. And because the United States would be able to monitor those networks, we could make sure that moderate opposition elements would be the primary beneficiaries.
Subsequent actions could include measures to counter the Assad regime’s capacity to monitor opposition communications within the existing telecommunications infrastructure.
All of this could be done without putting American boots on the ground: Cyber Command specialists could monitor these opposition-held networks from afar to counter any government attempts to interfere with them, while training moderate opposition elements to be able to operate and protect their own digital communications.
Anyone who doubts the power of open Internet access should consider Egypt.
After the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government, as Salafists sought control by spreading propaganda through traditional media outlets, an Egyptian cardiologist-turned-satirist, Bassem Youssef, began broadcasting YouTube clips to expose their baseless claims. Today, Mr. Youssef’s program is one of the most popular in Egypt, and it is serving to carve out a niche in the country’s political discourse for Egyptians to question poor governance and radical theology.
The Egyptian example also highlights the long-term role that such a cyberstrategy could play in Syria once the regime falls. As in Egypt, the country will enter a difficult period of political transition, during which access to and control of digital communications will be vital. By ensuring that the population has an open means of coordinating and having access to the Internet, the United States could greatly further its goal of promoting moderate views.
Indeed, this strategy should apply across the region, wherever the United States is trying to influence political developments. Despots who would deny their people the right of digital assembly should be shown that America will employ elements of power in cyberspace, as in other domains, when our nation’s interests and values align.
A cybercampaign in Syria, by demonstrating superior American capabilities, would also help deter those who may wish to conduct their own cyberattack against our homeland in the future.
There are few good options available to address the Assad regime’s slaughter of its own people. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world is powerless. A well-executed cybercampaign could greatly strengthen the opposition, undermine the Syrian government, promote ideals of free speech and assembly, and help shape the strategic environment in the region for years to come — all at the same time.
Chris Finan, a former adviser to the Obama administration on cybersecurity, is a consultant for the Department of Defense and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.