Warfare may not require boots on the ground and jets in the sky, but instead could utilise ones and zeros and take the battlefield into cyberspace. Cyberwarfare should be considered when thinking about intervention in Syria.
Last Monday I attended a public event run by the UCL Debating Society discussing the pressing question of intervention in Syria. Presenting the argument for intervention was a group headed by Shiraz Maher of ICSR, recently interviewed in the most recent episode of Debrief. These reasons were articulated along a number of specific lines. Initially, appeals were made to the moral and legal duty to assist the people of Syria; repressed, tortured, displaced, and murdered by a wantonly violent and ruthless regime. It was further argued that intervention would substantially undermine Iranian dominance in the Arab World, a dominance bolstered by the removal of Saddam Hussein. Should the Assad regime fall, the strategic implications for Iran would be two-fold; not only eliminating a key military base, but also directly impacting the supply chain to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Ahmadinejad knows this, which is why members from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were recently sent to Assad to lend their disturbing expertise in infiltrating and suppressing populations, in an effort to subdue the groundswell and divide the Free Syria Army (FSA). Concurrently, the Syrian government has sought to stir up sectarian violence within a country characterised by a hugely diverse cultural and religious mosaic, by supporting, funding, and arming Kurdish militants within its borders. Were Syria to descend into a full-blown civil war down sectarian lines, it would not only further destabilise the region and undermine the social movement, but also allow Assad to play the long-game until the 2014 ‘election’. The pre-designed outcome of which would almost certainly secure a further 14 years of the present regime, result in claims of legitimacy from Assad, and guarantee the further subjugation of the Syrian people. The final point raised in favour of intervention was in order to kerb the influx of Islamist groups into the country, who are currently seeking to exploit the security vacuum created by the last 19 months of conflict. Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups capitalised on similar situations in Iraq, with AQI witnessing a comeback in recent times, in Somalia, and more recently in Mali on the coattails of Tuareg nationalist rebels returning home after fighting for Gadhafi in Libya.
However, I do not wish to simply regurgitate the increasingly strong case for invention already made. Indeed my own stance on whether we should, or even could, intervene in Syria has chopped and changed over the last year and a half. I am familiar with many of the counter-arguments to intervention, including the militarisation of peace keeping, the risk of escalating violence further, perceived neo-colonist attitudes to world policing, the question of China and Russia, the danger of arming and supporting extremist groups, as well as the distinct geographical and demographical differences between Syria and any other conflict of the Arab Spring. However, with the death toll now over 30,000, I believe the time for negotiation, diplomacy, and debate alone has passed, and there is an increasing urgency for some form of decisive action to assist the people of Syria. In this vein, a number of options were proposed along the lines of funding, arming, and training of rebels, enforcing a no-fly zone and naval blockade in the region, or implementing an Arab lead international ‘peace-keeping’ force to secure a buffer zone for civilians along the Turkish border. At this point a few of the audience chimed in, advocating increased aid without military involvement. The naivety of this suggestion shocked me. Whilst the use, or threat, of military action should never be a casual, throw-away decision, and hopefully the last resort after all alternative avenues have been exhausted, we should not underestimate the nature of the beast and the reality of the situation we are dealing with here. This is a regime that detains and tortures children for daring to write anti-government graffiti or supply protestors with water, the likelihood of them nonchalantly permitting the flow of food, tents, and medicine through to the 1.5 million displaced citizens would be laughable, were the situation not so desperate.
Nonetheless, despite a purely humanitarian mission being wildly idealistic, I do admire the attempt at least to think further the polarised arguments presented or the common courses of action proposed. Indeed this made me reflect on what forms of alternative intervention, what differing strategies could be feasible, other than physical military engagement or diplomatic impotence. Specifically, what forms of intervention could minimise the regimes ability to slaughter it’s people, level the playing field between the Syrian army and the FSA rebels, reduce the necessity of international forces being deployed to Syria, whilst ensuring the Syrian people were masters of their own destiny. Today warfare, or indeed the mitigation of warfare, may not necessarily require the use of bullets and missiles or involve boots on the ground and jets in the sky, but instead could utilise ones and zeros and take the battlefield into cyberspace. While scholars, practitioners, and commentators disagree on Panetta’s alarmist assessment of a pending “cyber pearl harbor”, the utility of cyber weapons in modern conflict is not merely some matrix induced paranoia, but an empirical reality. In fact one of the most significant examples of how such cyber weapons have been utilised, actually unfolded in Syria five years ago. In 2007, the Israeli Air Force carpet bombed a nuclear facility on the outskirts of Dayr az-Zawr in North-East Syria, being built for Assad by the North Koreans. Significantly, the Syrian air defence system displayed a clear night sky when Israeli F15 and F16 fighter jets descended upon the site. Before any protection or retaliation was possible the mission was complete and jets had left Syrian airspace, no one could be rallied because instead of giving up the element of surprise the Israelis controlled what the Syrians saw by hacking their systems at Tall al-Abyad. How this was actually achieved remains debatable, however many believe it is likely that the Israeli attack was most likely preceded by a small ‘stealth’ unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). This would not have shown up on the radar, but would have intentionally flown into the Syrian radar beam and used the same open-ended radio frequency to transmit computer packets back to the radar’s computer, from there the Israelis were able to infiltrate the entire Syrian network. The malfunction warning sidestepped, a loop of a clear sky was played leaving Syrian defences completely redundant. The US have a similar cyber weapon code-named Senior Suter.
Given that five years ago the Soviet built Syrian air defence systems were infiltrated relatively easily and with such dramatically successful results, I wonder what role such techniques may play in conflicts in the future? Whilst international standards, legal frameworks, appropriate terminology, and notions of attribution and accountability are still in their relative infancy and often rather ill defined – the utility of such code in, say, minimising atrocities and protecting civilian lives by crippling state defences, military capabilities, and communications, for example, is perhaps something which should be considered. The supplementing of traditional kinetic warfare with cyber-attacks, either during or prior to engagement, will continue to grow in regularity and effectiveness as technologies develop and the strategic application of such weapons is better understood.
Photo credit: Accretion Disc