To the backdrop of fierce fighting in Damascus the Syrian government on Thursday effectively cut off all Syria’s access to the Internet in what is being called an unprecedented blackout.
The Local Coordination Committees, a leading network of activists on the ground, said “communications and Internet service have been cut in most parts of Damascus and its suburbs, raising fears that the criminal Syrian regime is up to something.”
It said landline and mobile services were cut throughout the central provinces of Homs and Hama, in8 Daraa and Suweida provinces in the south, in Tartus province on the coast, and in some cities in Deir Ezzor and Raqa provinces in the east.
Official news agency SANA also saw its feed interrupted at midday.
According to activists, sudden communication cuts regularly occur before major military offensives.
The outage is reported to have started Thursday at 12:26pm local time whereby 84 of Syria’s IP blocks became unreachable, therein effectively removing Syria from the Internet.
However, despite Internet experts tracking the outage to government-controlled tracer routes, state media is reporting that “terrorists” are to blame for the outage.
“It is not true that the state cut the Internet. The terrorists targeted the Internet lines, resulting in some regions being cut off,” according to Syria’s minister of information.
According to the AFP the outage coincided with reports that Syrian troops had launched a major offensive in southeastern Damascus, with the army attacking rebel strongholds in a string of towns along the highway. This while rebels also took a stand near Damascus International Airport.
The Guardian reports that five ISP addresses did continue to function, but an analysis has shown they may be the same IP addresses that were used to deliver malware to anti-regime activists earlier this year, therein suggesting the government is reserving access for itself.
International human rights agencies have expressed fears that this signals a concerted effort by Bashar al-Assad’s presiding government to purge rebel forces.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford is quoted as saying he was not surprised but was concerned by this tactic:
“In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez shut down all communications and the world never got a clear picture of what happened in [a massacre in] Hama,” Ford said. “We do not want a repeat of that. A lot of the pictures that you see on the nightly news are from communications equipment that we supply to very brave and to very dedicated opposition activists inside Syria.”
While this kind of practice may not be out of character for the Assad regime, an Internet blackout of this scale is unusual.
The blackout was within the regime’s power because Syria has only a limited number of service providers and its telecommunications are handled by the government regulated establishment, meaning that an “off-switch” is never far out of reach.
Landline phones are now said to be slowly coming back on, but at the time of writing Internet access remains down.
This comes after months of bloody fighting and fears that the Assad regime, in its attempt to cling to power, might be about to unleash chemical weapons.