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Why Did 95 Percent of Syria Lose Internet This Week?

Analysts say Thursday’s nationwide outage was the largest since May of last year, and one of a handful of major web outages since 2011. We look at who or what might have been responsible, and how Syria’s internet functions three years into the war.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

On Thursday, a reported 95 percent of Syria lost internet connectivity for more than seven hours, the longest outage since May of last year and one of the biggest since the first such blackout, in June 2011.

Small-scale outages happen regularly across Syria; on Friday, the day after the national outage, Aleppo, via a link to Turkey, was off grid for more than two hours. Analysts are unclear about what could be the result of deliberate network shutdowns by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment, the government arm that controls the country’s internet, and what is the result of technical problems caused by fighting in the areas near the communications cables.

We asked Doug Madory, senior analyst at Renesys, a firm that tracks Internet data and intelligence and has been monitoring the situation in Syria, to weigh in on what might have caused the latest outage.

Syria Deeply: In context, how big was this outage?

Doug Madory: It’s definitely the longest since May of last year, if you count minutes. Last May was eight hours and 20 mins, and this one was seven hours and 20 minutes. There have been a bunch of national blackouts in the last year, but a lot of times they’re of a shorter duration than that.

SD: What stayed up, and where?

Madory: The five percent is the northern Syria line that goes to Turkey, that’s what stayed up. These are independent outages; it’s a partitioned network. The main line goes through submarine cables and the providers connected to it and sending it to the rest of the country are PCW, Deutsche Telekom and Telecom Italia.

SD: What are the theories behind why this happened?

Madory: If you go back to 2011, there’s been a number of different scenarios. One interesting thing I hadn’t thought about recently was that their first internet blackout was in June 2011, and in that time they did a selective outage where they just knocked out mobile and residential networks but left government networks online: things like the Oil Ministry and a few other random things.

At that time, we said that maybe the government had learned from from what happened in Egypt that they don’t want to knock everything off, just knock off the things you don’t want on. Things stayed like that for a weekend. Since then, they’ve never done that again.

But with that, they demonstrated that they had the ability to surgically block things, and things have possibly evolved to a more sophisticated state where it’s possibly now happening on a much smaller scale and it just gets lost in the noise of day-to-day outages. It’s interesting to think that at the outset they started off being surgical about it, and the rest since then might have been big blackouts. Aleppo was down again today for two hours and 11 minutes.

SD: Do you think this was deliberate?

Madory: I don’t think I see anything as identifiable as the government’s link to Friday’s Twitter outage in Turkey. Syrian state telecom is responsible for keeping the line up. [The government] is involved in keeping the service up most of the time. Government offenses have been coordinated with outages. Every so often we see that barrel bombs are dropping in Aleppo, and then we see the internet line’s down there, so we don’t know if a bomb hit something or if there was a power outage.

SANA put out a report saying that there was a fiber optic cut. I can’t disprove that. Syria’s internet could be all relying on one fiber line. In the past it has seemed to work like this: line submarine cables come into [coastal Alawite] Tartous, then go to a central office in Damascus, then are distributed to the rest of country. It’s normal, it’s not like people on the coast get to have access to submarine cables without having to go through Damascus.

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