Syria’s online battlefield

A savvy strategic communications cyber campaign is the defining feature of Syria’s asymmetrical civil war.

Anti-government Syrian media activists set up an illegal internet satellite to upload photos and video of the destruction by government shelling and bombardment [Getty]
Anti-government Syrian media activists upload photos and videos of the destruction by government shelling and bombardment [Getty]

Often cyber warfare is described as a “future threat”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Warfare in the cyber domain is now an everyday occurrence – and has been for some time.  

In 2007, Russia carried out a cyberattack against Estonia. The use of the co-called Stuxnet virus to slow down Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme has been all but officially acknowledged by the US. During the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011, the lights mysteriously went out in the city of Abbottabad, even though today nobody has explained exactly how this happened.

Cyber warfare, and the threat it poses, is very real. The civil war in Syria is a great example of this. 

Syrian cyber war

The reason why the cyber domain is such an attractive target in modern warfare is because of the level of dependency society has on the internet. Syria is no exception.

Dark side

For Syrians stuck in their war-torn country, the internet is a way to communicate with the outside world. The war crimes committed by the Assad regime and ISIL are documented forever in cyberspace for the whole world to see.

During the siege of Kobane, the world was focused on this tiny dusty border town only 7 square kilometres in size – a feat made possible by the high degree of mobilisation the Kurds enjoy on social media. 

However, the dependency of Syrians on the internet also has a dark side – especially in warfare.

Like most wars, the civil war raging in Syria serves as a Petri dish for macabre creativity and ghoulish innovation. The pressures of the conflict have forced all sides to find new ways to take on their opponents. This is reflected by gruesome creations, such as the Assad regime’s barrel bombs, for example. The cyber domain is no exception.

The war in Syria is perhaps the first civil war where the use of social media, the internet, mass communication, and satellite news have been harnessed by all sides to wage a coordinated cyber warfare campaign.


The war in Syria is perhaps the first civil war where the use of social media, the internet, mass communication, and satellite news have been harnessed by all sides to wage a coordinated cyber warfare campaign.

In an asymmetrical conflict like the Syrian civil war, the main objective of the insurgent or the government’s forces is to attack their opponent using minimum effort, maximum convenience, and inflicting the greatest amount of damage at his centre of gravity in order to achieve the ultimate possible desired effect.

This feat is accomplished now, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, internet and the availability of telecommunication at a very low cost and at a relatively low degree of risk to the fighters. 

Cyber caliphate

Today the same smartphone that allows loosely linked terrorist cells to coordinate an attack across international borders on one day can be used as a detonation device for a roadside bomb the next day.

A video can be taken on the same smartphone immediately after a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo, and then can be easily uploaded to YouTube. In a matter of minutes, millions of viewers around the world can watch.

ISIL uses the cyber domain for recruitment and to promote their shock propaganda videos. The so-called cyber caliphate, which at a minimum sympathises with ISIL if it is not outright connected to the terror group, has hacked major news outlets like Newsweek and US Central Command’s social media accounts. This is all connected to a savvy strategic communications cyber campaign.

Similarly, the Syrian Electronic Army – with suspected links to the Assad regime – carries out cyberattacks against international media outlets and organisations to achieve the same effect.

What makes the use of the cyber domain in Syria interesting, and in some cases unique in warfare, is the direct and immediate impact it can have on the battlefield.

The US has publicly acknowledged that it has used “selfies” taken by ISIL fighters to identify their location. Within hours the location is then hit by an air strike. While not exactly a sophisticated cyberattack, this example demonstrates another use of the cyber domain in Syria’s civil war.

Smoke rises after air strikes in Damascus [REUTERS]
Smoke rises after air strikes in Damascus [REUTERS]

Modern ‘honey trap’

The Assad regime has lured rebel fighters into thinking young women are interested in communicating with them in internet chat rooms. This modern version of the classic “honey trap” convinces unsuspecting insurgents to click on a link infected with malware in order see a picture of the alleged young woman.

The malware then removes files on the insurgent’s computer containing battle plans and information about him, his friends and his fellow fighters. Assad can then launch targeted attacks using the information.  

This is warfare in 21st century Syria.

What the world is witnessing in Syria in terms of cyber warfare is only the beginning. Like it or not, cyber warfare is here to stay. The use of the smartphones and computers in combat will soon be as normal to warfare as guns, tanks, and planes.

Leaders and policymakers should get prepared. This so-called “future threat” is already here today.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.