The Impact of Cyber Capabilities in the Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War has been ongoing for nearly five years and has captured the news headlines for its brutality. It is also notable because communications and social technology have pervaded almost every aspect of this conflict. These technologies have played such a prominent role that the conflict has been described as “…the most socially mediated civil conflict in history .” The emergence of this type of conflict was predicted in 1982 by William H. McNeill, who argued that mass communications technology would reduce the ability of governments in developing countries to use police force to stay in power . McNeill’s prediction came to fruition as the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War were facilitated by social media technology. However, once hostilities broke out, the belligerents began to use cyber capabilities to further their side of the war.
Cyber capabilities are the use of social and communications technology to sabotage the enemy or to gain a tactical or strategic advantage in a conflict. This can encompass the use of a wide range of technologies. Cyber capabilities can include the simple use of social media to garner support for a particular side of the conflict. However, they can also be more sophisticated. For example, enemy websites can be disabled through distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks or defaced by hackers. Hackers can also be employed to gather intelligence from the devices of enemy operatives. Lastly, cyber capabilities can also be used to disable military equipment and infrastructure. Many have hailed the use of cyber capabilities as revolutionary to warfare and argued that it would have a profound impact on military tactics and strategy. Recent experiences in the Syrian Civil War, indicate that this is largely true as cyber capabilities have greatly increased the propaganda abilities of the belligerents and have allowed non-state actors and even noncombatants to meaningfully engage in the war effort.
The Strategic Implications of Cyber Capabilities
Carl von Clausewitz, who is one of the world’s most influential military thinkers, provided a framework that described the social and political foundations of war in his magnum opus, On War. Clausewitz argues that wars are fundamentally political in nature. He also provides a framework that describes the societal interactions that occur in war. In this framework, Clausewitz describes a “wondrous trinity” that joins three entities: the government, the military, and the people. Each of these entities also corresponds with a particular attribute which are rationality, capabilities (including skill and chance), and passion, respectively. Clausewitz argues that the interactions between these entities and their attributes influences the outcome of the war.
The use of cyber capabilities can have a great impact on Clausewitz’s wondrous trinity. Cyber capabilities can greatly hinder the ability of an entity to effectively wage war. When cyber capabilities are used for this manner, it has an impact on the military and capabilities elements of the trinity. Cyber capabilities can be used to cause physical damage to sabotage the enemy’s ability to wage war. A great example of this would be the Stuxnet virus, which was used to damage nuclear centrifuges in Iran . Cyber capabilities can also be used to sabotage the enemy’s military capabilities without causing physical damage. An example of this would be the use of electromagnetic spectrum warfare, which can be used to disrupt enemy communications and cause their equipment to fail and malfunction on the battlefield .
Cyber capabilities can also have an impact on the people and passions element of the trinity. Cyber capabilities can be used to build support for a side of a conflict on a global scale. A part of this process is employing strategic narratives, which connects the decision to enter a conflict and the subsequent events to a policy objective in a manner that an audience can relate to . Successful strategic narrative will be able to win “hearts and minds” and shift public perceptions to your side . However, cyber capabilities can also be employed to undermine the enemy’s strategic narratives. The development of communications technology has allowed for images and videos to be quickly sent to a worldwide audience. This means that entities can create propaganda videos and use online activism to destroy public support for the enemy . Cyberattacks can also be used as a means of damaging the flow of information and services which can challenge the power of an entity and potentially damage the public’s trust in them . This “information warfare” is considered to be a form of soft power  and an element of 4th Generation Warfare (4GW), which calls for the targeting of civilian support for the enemy’s war effort .
Cyber capabilities also have other strategic implications. Joseph Nye argues that certain characteristics of cyber capabilities empowers non-state actors. Nye states that cyber capabilities have a relatively low cost and can be used anonymously. This allows non-state actors to participate and have a meaningful impact in cyber warfare . This stands in stark contrast to conventional forms of warfare, where non-state actors often cannot generate the resources needed to have a meaningful military impact on the battlefield. In addition, the nature of cyberspace favors non-state actors as governments rely on complex cyberspace operations to function. Since cyber networks are vulnerable to being attacked, any attack on their system has the potential to cause huge amounts of damage. Non-state actors, however, do not rely on such systems and thus are not as vulnerable to cyber retaliation. As a result, the only methods that states have to deter cyber warfare from non state actors are to use the force of law against them or to take measures that clamp down on free speech . These factors have favored non-state actors, which effectively challenges the state’s monopoly on force in cyberspace. However, Nye argues that the erosion of the monopoly on force is unlikely to result in the dominance of non-state actors. Governments have more resources and thus can develop better cyber capabilities than non-state actors. As a result, cyber capabilities are unlikely to upset the balance of power but will make it more difficult for states to dominate cyberspace .
The Syrian Civil War
Cyber capabilities have played a very visible role in the Arab Spring and the subsequent Syrian Civil War. The Arab Spring, which broke out in Tunisia in late 2010, began to inspire political activism against the regime of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, in January of 2011 . By March, this political activism was mobilized into non-violent, anti-Assad protests. The main grievances of the protesters were political and economic in nature. The protesters were upset about the economic inequalities and unemployment that had arisen from neo-liberal economic reforms that had been enacted by the regime. The protesters were also angry with authoritarian rule and the nepotistic system that granted more power to certain ethnic/religious minorities (Alawites, Druze, and Ismali) and the Sunni elite class . Protests erupted in Dara’a and then quickly spread to the rest of the country via social media with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest .
Before the outbreak of the protests, the Syrian government formed a “special council” to advice them in anticipation of the outbreak of mass protests. This special council argued that the Arab Spring succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt because the government did not crush the protests from the start . The Syrian government followed this advice and responded to these protests with a crackdown in which security forces fired upon, arrested, and tortured non-violent protesters in Dara’a. A heavy-handed crackdown also took place in Homs where the military used artillery and airstrikes against the protesters . Protesters responded by posting videos and images of the regime’s brutal police tactics to social media and graphic images of the body of a 13-year-old boy soon caused outrage in the international community. The Syrian regime responded by shutting down internet and cellphone networks in Dara’a and Homs to prevent the release of shocking images. However, protesters were able to circumvent these network outages by smuggling in communications equipment and foreign SIM cards, which could be used to access networks in foreign countries .
Protesters eventually took up arms to defend themselves. In July 2011, the Free Syria Army (FSA) formed to protect protesters from government repression and to seize territory from the Syrian military. The FSA was formed as a decentralized armed force that incorporated a diverse range of actors including local self defense units, defectors from the military, Islamists, and foreign fighters . By 2012, the rebellion had spread and fighting had reached Damascus and Aleppo .
The conflict, however, rapidly took a sectarian dimension as the majority of the opposition were Sunni. The Assad regime used sectarian undertones to rally support from Syrian minorities. This was achieved by portraying the opposition as Sunni extremists. This strategy allowed the Assad regime to claim that the opposition posed an existential threat to minority groups like the Alawite, Druze, and Christian communities. Many of these communities sided with the regime and formed militias to join the fight . The Assad regime also sidelined and jailed Sunni units in the military, fearing that they might defect to the opposition .
Sectarianism also became prominent amongst the opposition. The political wing of the FSA declared that the opposition would be nonsectarian. However, Salafists and jihadist groups, like Al-Qaeda, started to gain power and commit atrocities against Alawite and Christian civilians. The rise of these extremist groups is likely linked to funding from the Arab Gulf States . It was from this sectarian climate that the opposition began to fracture and fight amongst themselves. Splits within the jihadist camp eventually led to the rise of the infamous Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which eventually allowed them to brutally seize large swaths of the country.
The Syrian conflict has also become a proxy war within a larger geopolitical struggle. Many analysts would interpret the conflict as a geopolitical struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia . Iran has provided military support, advisors, and financial resources to support the Assad regime, which is a close ally. Iran also wants to support the Syrian government, as they fear that the fall of the Assad regime could spark a similar revolution in their own country . Hezbollah, which is oftentimes viewed as an Iranian proxy force, also sent thousands of fighters to reinforce Assad’s military and provide training in urban combat . On the other side of the proxy war is Saudi Arabia, whose objective is to counter rising Iranian influence in the Middle East and to cut Hezbollah supply lines through Syria . Saudi Arabia provided funding to Syrian rebel groups to obtain this end .
Other countries have also entered the fray to protect their interests in the Middle East. Russia, who is a Syrian ally, has sided with the Assad regime to protect its strategic military bases on the Mediterranean and to portray itself as a military power . The United States and Europe have also become interested in this conflict. The US and Europe have denounced the Assad regime on human rights and humanitarian grounds and are believed to have considered military intervention. The United States, however, has thus far declined to intervene but has provided the opposition with lethal and nonlethal military aid . As a result, they have also entered a proxy war against Russia.
The Use of Cyber Capabilities in the Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War is a very complex conflict. Although the main theater of combat is between the Syrian government and the opposition, the proxy war between foreign actors adds an additional dimension to the conflict. Interactions between foreign actors and belligerents on the ground in Syria, further complicates the conflict. Lastly, non-state actors, who are not affiliated with any of the belligerents, have entered the fray. Each of these dimensions of the conflict is fought in a different manner. As a result, the use of cyber capabilities in each of these dimensions must be evaluated through a different strategic lens.
The Syrian Theater of the Conflict
The main theater of the conflict is occurring in Syria between the Assad regime and the opposition. The main objective of the regime has been to reassert control over the country whereas the opposition’s objective is to seize territory and topple the regime. As a result, this theater of the conflict needs to be analyzed through the strategic lens of insurgency/ counterinsurgency.
The opposition has used cyber capabilities to gain support for the insurgency. Following the outbreak of protests in 2011, the Syrian government expelled all journalists from the country, effectively denying media coverage to the opposition. The opposition adapted to these restrictions by using social media to publicize government atrocities and the events of the conflict to generate domestic and international support for their cause . After the outbreak of hostilities, the FSA established press centers and Facebook pages to disseminate real-time news, encourage defections from the Syrian military, and establish a strategic narrative . The government responded by creating the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), which is a team of hackers and social media specialists, to counter the opposition’s dominance of social media. The SEA is believed to be lead from Damascus but includes hackers from the Syrian diaspora who live abroad . The SEA posted pro-Assad messages on the social media accounts of the FSA and public figures, who supported the opposition, including Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Nicolas Sarkozy. They also attempted to convince Facebook to delete the FSA’s account. These tactics, however, backfired as the FSA ultimately convinced Facebook to permanently block access to the SEA’s account .
The FSA’s use of social media has been very effective, as the publication of governmental atrocities has garnered international support for their cause. Videos from social media have been used by human rights groups to denounce the Assad regime. Social media has also been used to generate international support and has proven to be indispensable in the rebel’s grand strategy. The power of these videos can be illustrated by Obama’s use of videos of chemical weapons attacks to call for military intervention against Assad . However, social media has also proven to be a double-edged sword and has harmed the opposition by allowing opposition atrocities to be quickly published online. The best example of this was video footage that showed an opposition fighter eating the heart of a Syrian soldier. This footage horrified Western audiences and made them rethink their support of the opposition. This was particularly damaging as it occurred at a time when the opposition was seeking weaponry from the West .
The Syrian Civil War has also spilled over into cyberspace. The FSA has launched DDoS cyberattacks on government websites belonging to Syria’s parliament and pro-Assad media outlets . Syrian individuals have also joined the war for cyberspace and have employed sophisticated hacking techniques to launch their own cyberattacks. One hacker was able use malware and information from the SEA’s Facebook page to launch a DDoS attack on four pro-Assad news outlets. The opposition was also able to obtain access to al-Assad’s personal email correspondence. These emails revealed details about Assad’s life like revelations that he was buying luxury goods during the war and that he was likely accepting strategic advice from Iran, which he had publicly denied. These details were eventually leaked to the Wikileaks and the newspaper, The Guardian . These revelations proved to be embarrassing for al-Assad and helped to discredit his strategic narrative.
The opposition has also used cyber capabilities to obtain a tactical advantage on the battlefield. Rebel fighters are known to use online applications, like Google Maps, to locate targets and calibrate long-range weapons to strike them. These fighters have also used the internet to coordinate units on the battlefield . The regime, however, has adapted to this tactic by occasionally disrupting the internet and other communications networks ahead of government military offensives . The regime has also successfully used cyber capabilities to gain a tactical advantage. The SEA uploaded malware onto numerous social media websites like YouTube, Facebook, and Skype. This malware attacked opposition social media accounts and allowed the SEA to steal passwords, gain control of opposition computers, and monitor online activity . This left the opposition vulnerable to being spied on and located through geolocation data, which exposed them to attack by military forces . The regime also gained access to social media accounts by obtaining login information from captured activists and fighters. This allowed the SEA to pose as opposition activists and spread misinformation and malware . It might also have allowed the regime to send fake battle plans to units to draw them into ambushes. The opposition has detected and adapted to these tactics, making it more difficult for the regime to effectively use cyber capabilities. As a result, the regime has also started to track foreign aid workers through geolocation data since they are often in close proximity to the opposition forces and are less wary of cyber security concerns .
The International Dimension of the Conflict
The Syrian conflict has a proxy war dimension with various states supporting or attempting to topple Assad’s regime. This geopolitical struggle has pitted many of the world’s most powerful countries against each other as they have supported different sides of the conflict. As a result, this dimension of the conflict should be viewed as a traditional interstate proxy war. However, many states including the United States and Iran have threatened direct military intervention in the conflict.
What is notable about the Syrian conflict is that the countries that are supporting and opposing the Syrian government have largely refrained from using their cyber capabilities. The United States had considered the use of cyberattacks to undermine the Assad regime because it would be a low risk way to respond to the public’s calls for intervention in the conflict. The Pentagon and National Security Agency had drafted a plan to use American cyber capabilities to attack the Syrian military. The objective of the plan was to ground the Syrian air force and disable key military sites. President Obama, however, decided against a cyberattack because its impacts would be highly visible and it would be difficult for America to deny that it was involved in such a sophisticated cyberattack. As a result, there were fears that a cyberattack could lead to the escalation of the conflict and would invite cyber retaliation from Iran or Russia . Obama thus felt that the political risks of a cyberattack were too great.
Despite the absence of cyberattacks by interested nations in the conflict, the SEA has actively used its cyber capabilities on targets beyond its borders. Many of these cyberattacks have been against media outlets that the SEA accuses of espousing anti-Assad narratives. The SEA launched DDoS attacks against Al Jazeera, BBC News, Orient TV, and Al Arabia . They also hacked and defaced numerous websites by posting pro-Assad text and images. The websites targeted included prominent media outlets like Al Jazeera, BBC, CBS News, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Financial Times. The websites of other organizations like Harvard University, the United States Marine Corps, and the French Embassy in Damascus were also defaced . The SEA were also successful in hacking the Twitter account of the Associated Press in April 2013 and posting a tweet that falsely announced that Obama had been wounded by a bomb in the White House. This act of hacking was particularly damaging as it caused a large, temporary drop in the stock market. It is believed that future attacks on media outlets could potentially cause even more damage .
The Use of Foreign Cyber Capabilities Against Syrian Non-State Actors
Another dimension of the Syrian conflict has occurred between foreign countries and Syrian non-state actors. The most prominent struggle has been between the United States (and more recently various European countries) against ISIL and other jihadist groups in Syria. These groups have used cyber capabilities to support and grow their organizations and to further their jihadist ideology. The use of cyber capabilities by these groups is often referred to as cyber jihad . Cyber jihad campaigns usually attempt to spread a jihadist message across the internet to publicize their activities and recruit new followers. In the past, jihadists were restricted to private online forums. However, the emergence of social media websites allows them to reach a global audience, including Western countries. Their decision to produce graphic videos of executions and other propaganda videos in fluent English has allowed them to receive international attention at a low cost . This tactic has worked as tens of thousands of people, many of those from Western countries, have gone to Syria to join these terrorist organizations.
These organizations have also used their cyber capabilities to urge their followers to wage war on the West. Following the launch of US airstrikes in September 2014, ISIL called for their followers in Western countries to initiate indiscriminate “lone wolf” attacks against military and civilian targets. ISIL has also called for targeted attacks. For example in August 2015, ISIL released an alleged list of US soldiers and government officials that they asked their followers to kill . However, most of the attacks have been against random civilian targets and such attacks have occurred in Canada, Australia, the US, and against European tourists in Tunisia . The recent attacks on Paris were also connected to ISIL. However, these attacks marked a departure from their standard tactics as it was planned in Syria and then executed by an already established terror cell in France . The objective of these attacks is to intimidate their enemies, promote global jihadist activity, and to influence Western decision makers regarding airstrikes in Syria . As a result, their use of cyber capabilities should be interpreted through the lens of psychological warfare and 4GW.
The cyber tactics used by ISIL have been very effective and have even inspired other jihadist groups, like Al Qaeda, to adopt these methods. The United States and other Western countries have struggled to respond to ISIL’s use of cyber capabilities. This threat could theoretically be countered by blocking jihadist websites and social media accounts and monitoring individuals whose online activity indicates that they have intentions to launch a lone wolf attack . However, the feasibility of adopting these countermeasures in a democratic country is questionable. As a result, the use of American cyber capabilities against ISIL has been limited and has largely involved using social media to geolocate targets for air and drone strikes .
The Emergence of Foreign Non-State Actors
Cyber capabilities are also being employed by foreign non-state actors. This is important because these non-state actors are not Syrian and are not affiliated with states who are involved in the conflict. As a result, these non-state actors are not officially combatants in the conflict. The most prominent foreign non-state actor that has intervened in the conflict is the hacking group, Anonymous. Anonymous, which is a politically diverse group of hackers, began hacking operations against the Assad regime, on the grounds that they were restricting internet freedom and committing atrocities. This resulted in Operation Syria which targeted email servers at the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affairs and regime websites, like the Syrian Customs site . This sparked a hacking war with the SEA, which defaced an Anonymous-affiliated site in the Netherlands. Anonymous retaliated by releasing the actual names, locations, and other personal information about SEA operatives . This theoretically could allow them to be arrested or assassinated. Anonymous’s activities have recently expanded to attacking ISIL. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Anonymous announced Operation Paris and launched cyberattacks which disabled over 5,500 social media accounts belonging to ISIL and released the personal information of their operatives .
Other hackers have also joined the fray. An American hacker, who uses the pseudonym, Oliver Tucket, has targeted the regime with cyberattacks. His attacks have hacked at least one government server, which has allowed him to access and leak government documents and communications. Oliver Tucket’s motivations are partially political as he opposes the Assad regime. However, Tucket also acted out of jealousy of the attention given to the SEA’s hacking activities .
The events of the Syrian Civil War have clearly demonstrated the power of cyber capabilities in warfare. An analysis of the use of cyber capabilities in this conflict is very complex because of the multiple dimensions to the conflict. However, it would appear that all of the actors have used cyber capabilities for propaganda purposes. The use of social media, DDoS attacks, and the defacement of websites were all used to promote strategic narrative or to undermine and embarrass the enemy. Although all of these activities would fall under the category of information war, developments in social technology has increased the importance of winning the online information war. This is illustrated by the fact that most of the information that the public receives about the conflict is transmitted through social media . The hacking of the Associated Press by the SEA also demonstrates the damage that these cyberattacks can cause. As a result, cyber capabilities have greatly impacted the passions element of the wondrous trinity.
Cyber capabilities have only had a limited impact on the capabilities element of the trinity in the Syrian conflict. The regime and the opposition have both used cyber capabilities in an attempt to gather intelligence and gain tactical advantages on the battlefield. However, these activities have yet to be decisive. Foreign powers that have a stake in the outcome of the conflict possess cyber capabilities that could potentially be decisive. However, they have largely declined to use these capabilities for political reasons and out of fear of escalation.
The use of cyber capabilities has also facilitated the rise of 4GW in the Syrian conflict. Previously, it was difficult for a belligerent to directly communicate with, yet alone attack, the civilian population of their enemy. However, with social media, non-state actors like ISIL can directly publicize their message to global audiences and encourage internal lone wolf attacks on their enemies. The use of cyber capabilities has allowed these groups to directly target the enemy’s civilian population, which has made 4GW possible. The success of this strategy against Western nations will likely encourage other actors to employ 4GW in the future.
Lastly, the use of cyber capabilities in Syria has allowed non-state actors and even noncombatants to engage in the war effort. Groups, like Anonymous, and even individuals who are not even located in Syria, are now able to participate in the cyber dimension of the war. As a result, cyber capabilities have effectively eliminated geographical barriers to warfare allowing any person who has an interest in Syria to participate in the war effort. The participation of the Syrian diaspora in cyberattacks demonstrates this. Furthermore, the cyberwar in this conflict has even attracted those who do not have a stake in the conflict. For example, the actions of the hacker, Oliver Tucket, were motivated partly by jealousy. This opens up the possibility of apathetic parties, like bored computer hackers, to have an impact on the war. This possibility would have been entirely inconceivable in previous conflicts. The rise of non-state actors and noncombatants in the Syrian conflict, however, has yet to have a decisive impact on the outcome of the war. This, for the time being, vindicates Joseph Nye’s theory of cyber strategy. However, it will be interesting to see whether these actors can play a more decisive role in the future.
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