Two technology firms that monitor global Internet traffic report that Syria has been cut off from the Internet. Regular landline phone and cell phones services have been affected as well, Syrian opposition activist Ammar Abdulhamid told me. “Therefore, the possibility of accidental damage can be discounted,” said Abdulhamid. “This is something done intentionally by the regime, and reflects growing desperation on account of the recent advances made by rebels, especially in Damascus.”
The communications blackout may signal that the 20-month-long uprising against Bashar al-Assad has moved to a new and even more violent stage, in what some are calling the battle for Damascus. “With Assad forces now conducting major operations in Damascus,” says Abdulhamid, “they will cover it up as much as possible and create their own version of the truth.”
Opposition activists and armed rebels have their own communications system, explains NOW Lebanon editor in chief Hanin Ghaddar. “They have satellite phone with internet connectivity, so they can download information, and send videos and messages. However, I’m seeing some concern among activists on Facebook that with the main comms system offline their separate systems might now be easier to detect and they might be easier to find.”
Ordinary Syrians in towns and villages, most of whom don’t have their own internet service, but rely on Internet cafes, are virtually cut off from the rest of the world. The worry, says Ghaddar, is “that cutting off the internet is an indication that the regime is planning something like a huge massacre." A recent YouTube video taken of Aleppo after an air attack shows much of the city in ruins and evidence of large-scale civilian casualties, which activists fear is merely a prelude of what is yet to come.
Assad’s desperation, said Abdulhamid, is a product of the rebels’ recent advances. “In the last two weeks, the regime has lost six air bases around Damascus and Aleppo,” Abdulhamid said. “The rebels might not be able to hold all those bases, but they’ve lifted arms from those bases, including the surface to air missiles with which they’ve brought down 9 aircraft in the last two days—5 MiGs, 4 helicopter gunships.”
In effect, the opposition has begun to carve out a small no-fly zone of its own. “The rebels,” says Abulhamid, “are quietly laying siege to Damascus.”
Opposition activists anticipate that battle for Damascus is about to begin. Assad forces have been recalled from the provinces, in order to protect regime holdings in the Syrian capital, including the presidential palace. Much of the fighting is reportedly taking place on the main road to the Damascus airport. Emirates airline has suspended flights into Damascus, and so has Egypt Air.
In the meantime, the Obama administration is contemplating taking stronger action against Assad. After sitting on the sidelines during the course of the uprising, in spite of American allies like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and most recently British prime minister David Cameron urging the White House to take the lead, Obama has demurred.
“The administration has figured out that if they don’t start doing something, the war will be over and they won’t have any influence over the combat forces on the ground,” Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute told the New York Times. “They may have some influence with various political groups and factions, but they won’t have influence with the fighters, and the fighters will control the territory.”
If the battle for Damascus is indeed underway, the White House may have already forfeited its ability to shape a post-Assad Syria.