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Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Lede: Internet Shutdown Reported Across Syria

Last Updated, 1:35 p.m. Internet access disappeared across Syria on Thursday, and commercial air traffic was halted, prompting antigovernment activists to warn that the authorities might be planning to escalate their crackdown against the country's raging uprising. Only residents with their own satellite connections to the Internet could access the Web, activists said. Disruptions to phone service were also reported.

The network service provider Akamai posted a chart on Twitter showing the sudden drop off in Internet connections in Syria.

In a blog post reporting the shutdown, Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer of Renesys, a company based in New Hampshire that tracks Internet traffic, wrote:

Starting at 10:26 UTC (12:26pm in Damascus), Syria's international Internet connectivity shut down. In the global routing table, all 84 of Syria's IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the Internet.

Arbor Networks, a company in Lexington, Mass., that provides tools for monitoring the performance of networks, confirmed that it, too, documented the sudden disappearance of Internet traffic to and from Syria on Thursday before 11 a.m. Eastern Time. According to Arbor, “a snapshot taken from the vantage point of 246 network operators around the world,” showed traffic dropped “to virtually nothing.”

Google reported that access to all of its services inside Syria was down, and an Internet security expert named Chris Ginley told Wired's Danger Room blog, “Syria is offline.”

A representative of EgyptAir in Cairo told The Times that flights to Da mascus, the Syrian capital, were suspended indefinitely and it was not clear when they would resume again. One opposition activist noted that an online flight-tracking Web site showed a blank spot over Syria.

There were conflicting reports of the reason for the airport shutdown. An antigovernment activist in Beirut said that the airport in Damascus, the capital, had been closed cut for two days as rebel fighters edged ever closer, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the airport was shut because of a fierce government counteroffensive. State media had reported that it was closed for maintenance purposes, but the activist said the shutdown was because of “hit-and-run” strikes by rebels intending to force the closure of t he facility.

In an update on the Web shutdown, Mr. Cowie added:

Looking closely at the continuing Internet blackout in Syria, we can see that traceroutes into Syria are failing, exactly as one would expect for a major cutoff. The primary autonomous system for Syria is the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment; all of their customer networks are currently unreachable.

Now, there are a few Syrian networks that are still connected to the Internet, still reachable by traceroutes, and indeed still hosting Syrian content. These are five networks that use Syrian-registered IP space, but the originator of the routes is actually Tata Communications. These are potentially offshore, rather than domestic, and perhaps not subject to whatever kill-switch was thrown today within Syria.

Opposition activists outside the country, who have relied on the Internet to distribute video documenting the uprising, scrambled to chart the contours of t he communications disruption.

Some supporters of the Syrian government reported with dismay that parts of the country bordering Turkey were still online.

Daniel Etter, a photojournalist in Istanbul who has worked in northern Syria, told my colleague Liam Stack that he was on the phone with a fixer in Aleppo on Thursday when the line cut out. He added in a note on Twitter that some Syrian towns near the Turkish border are connected to Turkey's mobile phone network.

The Internet has been a strategic weapon for the uprising and the government alike, allowing activists to organize and communicate but also exposing them to surveillance. Fighters, activists and witnesses upload video of rebel exploits and atrocities by both government and rebel forces.

Our colleague C.J. Chivers, who has reported from inside Syria, notes that the government has done the same with electricity for many months - switching it on and off in various places” to disrupt the opposition. “Utility service can be both a carrot and a stick; in other words, a weapon of sorts.”

Syria's information minister, Omran Al Zoubi, denied that the government was responsible for the Internet blackout, saying that reports that roads to the airport in Damascus had been closed were untrue.

Opposition activists, however, disagreed, reporting that roads near the airport had been cut off due to heavy fighting.

Rami Jarrah, a British-Syrian activist who coordinates a network of citizen journalists inside Syria from Cairo, reported on Twitter that Syrian state television acknowledged the Internet blackout.

The Local Coordinating Committees, a coalition of Syrian activist groups, reported the shutdown in most parts of Damascus and in its suburbs as well as “most parts of the governorates of Hama, Homs, Dara'a; in all parts of the governorates of Tartous and Swaida; and in some cities in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.”

At the height of the protests in Egypt in 2011, that country's authorities switched off the Internet to block opposition activists from communicating and doc umenting their rebellion. Internet access was also cut in Libya last year during the revolt that toppled Col. Muammar el-Qadaffi.

Fighting has been especially intense around Damascus over the past two weeks with rebels seizing air bases and weapons there. Rebels have put the government under increasing pressure in recent weeks taking oil fields in eastern Syria and a major air base outside Aleppo and demonstrating their increasing ability to shoot down aircraft.

Rebel advances are gradually forcing the government to shrink the area it seeks to control and some analysts have speculated that if the Syrian government felt its core interests were threatened - if, for instance, Aleppo was in danger of being cut off from Damascus or the rebels succeeded in ringing the capital - the military might start an even more desperate crackdown

“Deliberately or not the rebels could be forcing the regimes hand ” said Yezid Sayigh a military analyst at the Carnegie Middl e East Center in Beirut.

The Internet cutoff apparently made some activists suspect that moment was at hand.

In a message distributed on Thursday, the Local Coordinating Committees said that they would “hold the regime responsible for any massacres that would be committed in any Syrian cities after such a move was made. Also, they call upon the world to move quickly and to take practical steps to protect civilians from the regime's crimes.”

The Beirut-based opposition blogger and journalist Shakeeb al-Jabri noted that while many antigovernment activists in Syria have a ccess to the Web through other means, that is very likely not true for many of the government's supporters.

Mai Ayyad, Hala Droubi and Liam Stack contributed reporting.