“The amount that one is able to tell about what’s happening in Syria or in a particular area just from following one of these groups is extraordinary,” says its founder, an Istanbul-based American who wished to remain anonymous. “The goal is to eventually be tracking one [group] from every province.”
The major theme the five-person group has noticed in recent months is a shift in rhetoric, from moderate to Islamist. “Everywhere from Damascus to Aleppo, there’s been a shift towards Islamism,” the founder said. “The al-Fatah Brigade started in 2012, and if you look at their promotional material, the character’s really changed. They started off with music and singing, and now it’s Islamist songs. The imagery changed. They weren’t an Islamist group to start off with. Now they’ve become followers of the Islamists. They’re disintegrating. And they’re ineffectual. They have less than 1,000 fighters, while a larger group probably has 4,000.”
In January 2012, he was still in Washington, “and I was noticing all the videos coming out, hundreds of them a day. Military defectors were releasing videos where they said, ‘I am X, from this town, from this division, defecting for these reasons.’ Nobody was collecting these, and I thought they were going to be very important. So we started collecting them. And then we started collecting [brigade] formation [and recruitment] videos.”
The team uses Google video search, sweeping through the hundreds of videos that are uploaded daily from every corner of the country. “All the videos come up under key words,” he said, “and we figure out which ones are from Syria. We didn’t really see many trends at the beginning, other than the [rhetoric] wasn’t very Islamist and that most of the people starting groups [and brigades] were officers. Over time it’s totally shifted: now most people’s messages in their videos are very Islamist, and most groups aren’t formed by [defected Syrian army] officers.”
SMC’s main feature is a tracker of major FSA brigades, including al-Islam, a mid-size, 4,000-man-strong formation based in Damascus’ suburbs, where the war is slowly encroaching and rebels are making headway against regime forces.
“We realized that [just occasionally tracking a group] doesn’t give a complete picture of what’s going on in Syria — it gives you dots on a map,” the founder said. “It’s a good starting point. We needed to [actively] follow these groups. So every day we collect the videos from those groups, we collect important Facebook posts they make, important Twitter posts, any information about them from Arab and English media. We track their movements and any shifts in their ideology or strategy.
“The first one we chose was al-Islam. It’s a smaller to mid-size group [making it easier to track]. We also chose it because it’s active in Damascus — it’s not al-Qaida, but it’s Syrian Islamist. Other groups are massive, there can be too much information to collect.”
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