Syria: Monitoring Humanitarian Norms in the Digital Age

By Ziyad Hayatli

Published on December 1, 2016


On a quiet summer day, in an office in London, a phone lights up and displays an image sent all the way from Syria of a bombed out four storey building, surrounded by rubble. The building is lifeless, and abandoned and the attached caption in Arabic is chilling:

“This building contained the centre of arbitration in the city of al-Atarib. I used to go to it a lot. And I was inside it ten minutes just before it was bombed”. The man who sent this image is not a journalist for any publication. He is an internally displaced Syrian who happened to be in a very troubled part of the war-torn country; the western part of Aleppo Governorate. All it would take is to put it up on a blog or a social media account to make the information available to anyone and everyone. A meagre internet connection is all that it took to deliver testimony and images from a region otherwise isolated.

Yet he is not alone. There are thousands of people like this man currently living in Syria, volunteering and working to report on what is going on around them. These people are known as “citizen journalists” rather than “professional journalists” who contribute to mainstream, established publications. Is the label even valid?

This article will consider why citizen journalism surged in Syria, and how the growth of this phenomenon has impacted the aspect of monitoring in international humanitarian law. It will conclude that the information from such sources has proved to be vital in the field of monitoring, reporting and verification within international humanitarian law.

Whys and Wherefores

Why has citizen journalism become so popular in Syria? The most obvious reason is the availability of technology and smart mobile phones in this digital age. They are portable documentation devices that can connect to the internet, take images and record sounds and videos. The Middle East as a whole, like most other regions in the world, has seen the proliferation of this technology as highlighted by the Mediterranean refugee crisis. As images emerged of Syrian refugees stranded on boats, swimming to the shores of Greece and Italy and walking in large columns through southern Europe to Germany, many also we seen to be carrying smart phones. In his ‘Time’ magazine article, ‘ See how smartphones have become a lifeline for refugees,’ Patrick Witty writes:

“Refugees fleeing war-torn territory have come to rely on their phones to make a passage to a better life. They use messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Line to communicate with loved ones back home. They navigate border crossings via Google Maps and Facebook Messenger. Their travails are documented on Instagram. A smartphone is often the only item they carry […] The European refugee crisis is the first of its kind in a fully digital age, and that has changed how the exodus is unfolding. With each border crossing, there is a race to find a new signal, a new local SIM card or a public wi-fi network.”

In addition, Syria’s current president, Bashar al-Assad, advocated the modernisation of Syria. He was the president of Syria’s Computer Society which was founded by his late brother, Basel al-Assad. This was part of a drive in which Syrians became even more technologically literate.

Secondly , from 1963 – 2011, Syria was in an official State of Emergency, which gives the Government extensive powers. Article 3 (a) places external and internal security forces under the direct control of a “customary governor” appointed by the head of the council of ministers. David Lesch, a historian with access to the ruling al-Assad family interviewed President Bashar al-Assad for his book, the New Lion of Damascus. He provides details of an interview in which the Syrian president pragmatically admits that the State of Emergency laws have been abused to quash political dissent. Nevertheless, the continued Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights; the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and threats from the Muslim Brothe USA Patriot Act saying that the American people ought to understand the need for drastic security measures following the tragedy of 9/11.

Despite this, when Bashar al-Assad succeeded to the throne in 2000, he came out in favour of some sort of reform. This was followed by a “Damascus Spring”, marked by decree no. 50 of 2001 on publications. According to this, privately owned publications were permitted to operate at the discretion of the Government and could be rejected on “matters related to public security”. The publication of stories affecting national security, national unity, and secret trials was prohibited. The satirical weekly Al-Dumari, owned by cartoonist Ali Farzat, was allowed to publish and its first edition sold 75,000 copies. However, it ceased publication in April 2003 after a “tug of war” between civil societies and the Government. The Syrian Human Rights Association, as well as the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Rights was also formed in this period. Despite the ongoing restrictive measures, this indicated the presence of progressives amongst the Syrian people, shattering the notion that Arab populations “do not know better” than to be ruled by an iron fist. Nevertheless, the Syrian Government had a monopoly on public and media discourse.

This is allied to the third factor; the outbreak of civil war, representing a deep seated political division within a state. When the Syrian government began to lose effective control over territories because of violence, other authorities took their place. Although armed groups are an important element in territorial control, it is not the only facet. Health, education and basic services still had to be run; therefore new local councils were formed. Syrians in these areas also had the opportunity to publish their own work and create an alternative media from the ground up. For a nation in the throes of a civil war, media and discourse becomes just as important as the fighting itself. As multiple “sides” in the war establish their narratives, an information war occurs. The purpose of journalism and reporting, in this context, thus becomes a political act with an agenda. It differs from the modern western conception of journalism which is meant to be neutral – even if media outlets have established biases (for example, the ‘Independent’ in the UK is known for being left-leaning, whilst the ‘Telegraph’ is Conservative).

The use of social media is cheaper and simpler than traditional means of printing and circulating material. The internet becomes a live space in which anyone with a connection can put in, or take out, information. The British coverage of the Falklands War of 1982 demonstrates how, before the advent of the internet, the flow of information was more easily controlled. In this example, journalists were reliant upon communications equipment owned by the army in which they were embedded.

Media Centres and citizen journalists

One of the main manifestations of citizen journalism has been the formulation of “media centres”. These range from covering news in a city, to an entire governorate and vary from a crude gathering of people in a room with laptops, to a more professional organisation. One of the first detailed accounts of such media centres in operation was recorded by‘Sunday Times’photographer Paul Conroy, in his book ‘Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s final assignment.’ Here, he witnesses a media centre in 2012; the early days of the civil war:

“The vocal drone filled our ears, and the scene that greeted us stopped me in my tracks. Through the thick haze of cigarette smoke hanging motionless in the air I saw a scene reminiscent of a hurricane-relief shelter. Between fifteen and twenty people, wrapped in thick blankets, lay or crouched on old mattresses that covered every inch of available floor space. Each of the blanket people had a laptop. The floor, or what was visible of it, was a tangle of wires, power cables and extension leads. A single tungsten bulb made a poor job of illuminating the rectangular room. The ghostly glow from the computer screens cast eerie shadows on the walls […] The source of the noise was now obvious – Skype. Almost everyone in the room was shouting into a computer or headset microphone”.

In this case, the media centre operated in the district of Baba Amr, within the city of Homs. At the time it was surrounded by the Syrian Army and besieged. Paul Conroy had entered by an unofficial and dangerous route. In a tragic outcome, his colleague Marie Colvin was killed in an attack on this media centre.

Another example is the Local Council of Darayya which is situated in the formerly besieged city of Darayya in the Damascus governorate. This council’s media wing released extensive footage of barrel bombs falling on the city. The media wing coordinated with Amnesty International to make a short informative film about these crude weapons. Shortly before the reconciliation process between the Government and rebels in the area and the evacuation of the residents, they documented a substance similar to napalm being used in the explosives (and their effects, one of which allegedly hit their only functioning field hospital).

In the later stages, media centres have become increasingly sophisticated. One example is the Edlib News Network, covering the governorate of Edlib. This area in north west of Syria is an opposition stronghold. One noticeable feature about such news sites is that they use social media; mostly Facebook and Twitter to create pages and disseminate information. The Edlib News Network describes itself as “a local network dedicated to reporting events in the governorate to a high standard, with a specialist team of activists from the liberated governorate”.

In addition to publishing articles and reports on events throughout the governorate, they have a “documentation division” dedicated to recording the details of victims, including names, ages, pictorial images and details of how they were injured or killed. For example, their documentation of an airstrike on the town of Kafr Daryan was featured in a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Armed groups in the digital age

A bizarre presence on social media has been that of armed groups within Syria. One of the most notorious examples is that of the so called “Islamic State” terrorist organisation (IS). Their news agency, al-Amaq “the depths”) publishes a range of material via social media; from brief official statements to high quality self promotional propaganda videos and magazines. Their videos of executions and beheadings (especially of foreign civilian hostages) are now unfortunately familiar to us.

The many other armed groups in Syria also have a social media presence. There are plenty of video statements announcing the formation of particular groups and their s aims, as well as the formation of coalitions and operations rooms between different groups. Jaish al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, filmed it’s own formation on the 29th of September 2013 and became a potent force within the war. From the radically leftist and secular People’s Protection Units to The Front for the Conquest of the Levant (formerly branded al-Qaeda in Syria), they have a common interest in showcasing their victories and political visions to the world.

One iconic video in relation to humanitarian norms features a rebel group lining up captured “Islamic State” fighters for what appears to be a mass execution. When the rebels pull out their pistols to shoot and kill prisoners of war, they drop them instead, and their leader gives a lecture on how they are not criminals, and are fair.

Some have official Twitter and Facebook accounts, in which they release written statements about their stance on various developments, especially ceasefire agreements. One relevant example is when the Aleppo Conquest operations room, a collection of Free Syria Army groups, issued a statement in direct response to allegations by Amnesty International, that armed groups were violating human rights. They pledged to launch investigations and make efforts to ensure that their members were in compliance with general humanitarian norms.

However, a category of armed groups stands out in terms of using social media specifically to monitor international humanitarian law. It is those who have been vetted by the CIA and cleared to receive lethal aid, mainly in the form of TOW missiles. These are sophisticated long range missile systems capable of destroying armoured vehicles and are therefore vital in this conflict. Since the inception of this “TOW missile programme” in Syria by the CIA, countless videos have emerged of armed groups using them, with great success, and they are uploaded to websites like YouTube or Liveleak. Groups include Liwa Suqour al-Jabal (Mountain Falcons brigade) Liwa Saif Allah (the Sword of God brigade) Liwa Fursan al-Haq (the Knight of Truth brigade) amonstg others. More than 15 videos were released from July – August 2015 showing TOW missiles being used on military targets belonging to the Syrian Government; a period dubbed as a “tank massacre”.

Despite having a propaganda value, the ultimate reason for recording these videos has been part of the requirement for the groups to prove to their benefactors that they are being used for their intended purpose. Failure to do so would suspend the delivery of the next batch of TOW missiles, ensuring that the CIA has a grip strong enough to prevent their uncontrolled proliferation to other undesired armed groups. The effectiveness of this strategy is often debated.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

The high density of information coming out of Syria, thanks to this activity and t the proliferation of technology, can amount to ‘open source’ intelligence; vital information that is widely accessible to the public. Whether it is a picture released by an activist, or a video recorded by an armed group, an amalgamation of data about a particular event can be used to build a clearer picture. One of the most well known examples is the practice of “geolocation”; using landmarks in pictures and video footage, cross-referenced with satellite imagery to mark a precise location where an incident has occurred. This can clarify whether objects protected by international humanitarian law, such as hospitals, have been bombed, or whether such objects were used unlawfully to stage military attacks. An example of the latter is when FSA group “the Mountain Falcons” (Suqour al-Jabal) was discovered to be using the roof of a hospital to fire long range TOW missiles in the border town of Azaz in north Syria.

The popularisation of this concept resulted in the formulation of niche websites like Bellingcat, a publication specializing in everything related to OSINT, and publishing articles investigating material from Syria since the outbreak of the civil war. These can range in scale from the bombing of a local bakery, to the destruction of a Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy:

At 19:30 Syrian time on 19 September, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy was attacked. Around 20 civilians were killed, including Omar Barakat, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s director in Urum al-Kubra. Eighteen trucks containing aid were destroyed. The Syrian Red Crescent called it a “flagrant violation of International Humanitarian Law.

The Russian Ministry of Defence denied involvement, and claimimg that in conjunction with the Syrian Government, it remained unaware of the location of the convoy at the time. They concluded that the most likely reason for the destruction was a fire outbreak. However Bellingcat contested this claim by using OSINT, and built a strong case to show that the damage shown was more consistent with an airstrike than a random fire.

Thus the use of OSINT to contest official claims can be seen as a form of electronic or desk investigative journalism. Bellingcat writes educational articles for its readers, (many of whom are not professional journalists) about how to use OSINT effectively for that purpose.

A more distinct manifestation of OSINT is “map making”. Many parties are involved in the Syrian civil war: the Government and allied militias; a range of opposition groups from moderate Islamist to extremist Islamist; the so – called “Islamic state” and the Syria Democratic Forces led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. It si therefore essential to keeping track ofwho holds what. “Map makers”, or amateur cartographers, some of whom are motivated simply by personal interest, have created increasingly detailed maps which are updated as the front lines move. Actual news organisations find it difficult and dangerous to report from the front lines but the large volume of OSINT coming out of Syria via digital routes has allowed the information gap to be filled by citizen journalists. Gael Cerez and Chris O’Brien of the National Geographic magazine commented:

“It’s another example of how the reach of the Internet and social media have allowed amateurs from far-flung reaches of the globe to pivot from enthusiastic hobbyists to respected pundits. Their emergence has challenged, and in some cases even supplanted the influence of traditional media organizations.”

Just like traditional news outlets, even the map makers have their known biases and some admit this. For example, map maker and self-described activist Thomas Van Linge, , is clearly “against” the Syrian government. Others consider it to be a matter of documentation and monitoring, such as Emmanuel Pene, who is known by his alias, Agathocle de Syracuse.

The abundant information makes this endeavour both precise and fragile. The Syrian Army’s capture of Palmyra from the so called “Islamic State”, or their encroachment of East Aleppo city which is held by the opposition are just a few of many examples. Arguments can be seen on social media about who holds a particular set of buildings, or a “strategic hill” on a front line. Armed groups know this and may release videos showcasing their progress. The 1070 Apartment Complex in east Aleppo is notorious for this reason, in which both rebels and government forces fought fiercely for control. Such points in the conflict are where the ‘information war’ becomes even more intense for the purpose of raising morale, and demoralising the enemy.

What next?

Traditionally, organisations have had a monitoring and informative role in places of human rights crises. These include behemoths such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations. Yet the proliferation of mobile information technology and the prominence of the internet has broken the old model of a one – way information flow. The coursing river flowing from informer to consumer has disappeared and in its place is an ocean of data from which we all take – or give. As the importance of a successful information war is realized, this ocean is frequently exploited through selective discourse. Buzzwords, sound bites, and even internet memes are repeated to support this or that side.

Syria is on course to be the most documented war in history and we can only speculate that as time moves on and more wars are fought, like examples will follow. The horrors of what occurs will be uncovered more quickly, and with more clarity, directly from one person to another. It is to be profoundly hoped that this will act as a deterrent to warfare rather than feeding the interest of the ghoulish.

The Author

Ziyad holds a BA in journalism and philosophy, as well as a masters LLM in international law.

Article picture: Iyad via Pixabay


Law & Philosophy