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How Syrian Civil Defense Is Alerting Civilians of Potential Airstrikes

The Syrian Civil Defense has developed a warning system to help civilians evade airstrikes. Powered by a network of spotters, the online platform sends minute-by-minute alerts of potential target zones after a warplane is seen taking off.

Written by Mohammad Khair Alhamwi Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Syrian civil defence volunteers, known as the White Helmets, sit in the group's truck at their base in the northern city of Aleppo, on September 29, 2016. KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images

DAMASCUS — At 11: 56 a.m. on Friday, the Syrian Civil Defense (SCD) issued an alert on its various social media accounts that a fighter jet left the Hama military airbase and was headed north. The statement listed at least eight potential target zones, including the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.

Expected time of arrival in Khan Sheikhoun, according to the alert, was two minutes.

Eleven minutes later, the volunteer rescue group the White Helmets issued a second alert for a Sukhoi Su-22 warplane that was circling over the town, a usual pre-strike procedure. By 12:15 p.m, eight minutes after the second alert, the activist-run Edlib Media Center reported that a Syrian warplane had launched two airstrikes on a marketplace in Khan Sheikhoun, killing at least seven people.

These warnings are part of the SCD’s newly designed early-warning system that provides minute-by-minute updates of aerial activity and potential strike zones in five provinces and 26 rebel-held districts and sub-regions in Syria.

Alrasid, or Sentry, as the system is called, can be accessed through various social media channels and provides two kinds of warnings: information on aircrafts spotted taking off and potential locations of their targets, and warnings of aircrafts circling directly over areas where attacks could take place, according to Mohammad Diab, the SCD early-warning system coordinator.

Sentry is not the first attempt to create an efficient and effective early-warning system for potential attacks in a country where residents have long relied on technology to develop survival strategies. In 2013, a group of activists that go by the name of Technicians for Freedom developed a website called Aymta that provides early warnings on SCUD missiles being launched, which typically take eight to 13 minutes to reach their targets. Around the same time, activist-run media outlets were established in almost every rebel-held region, to alert residents of warplanes and potential attacks.

According to Diab, however, Sentry is more efficient because it is powered by a vast network of “spotters” who are trained to identify warplanes and their potential targets in opposition-held parts of Syria. Sentry, he said, “makes civilian spotter networks more effective through a technical system that rapidly and dependably communicates warnings to affected populations.”

Sentry warnings aim to provide on average a five-minute window before a potential strike, but the time period is contingent on the distance between the airbase and the target, he said.

“For example, the warning time for a location close to an airbase could be two to three minutes, while a [further] location could be five to 11 minutes,” Diab told Syria Deeply.

According to Ibrahim Treesi, a resident of Ariha in Idlib governorate, a warning just a few minutes in advance is sufficient for civilians to take precautionary measures.

“When we are alerted that a fighter jet is nearby, we move away from rooms with windows that are more likely to get bombed or broken by shrapnel,” he said. Residents of higher floors also descend to lower floors or to the basement in case of an attack, he added.

Residents can access warnings through Facebook Messenger (@sentry.syria) or region-specific Telegram channels. The warnings are also posted on the Sentry’s own Facebook page and Twitter.

“We feel that Facebook, Messenger and Telegram are the best channels for the service because they all are already well-known platforms and have a huge reach inside Syria,” he said. The service so far has a growing network of 3,000 subscribers to its Telegram channel, 8,600 subscribers to the Messenger bot, and about 45,000 likes on its Facebook page.

Treesi, however, said he prefers the initiative used in his own community that relies on “sentries” who provide direct alerts over walkie-talkies when a warplane is spotted. Unlike the Sentry, the walkie-talkies also pick up on signals ordering the execution of a strike, giving residents a 30-second window to escape a target zone, while signaling to civilians hiding in shelters that the attack has been carried out, he said.

According to Treesi, walkie-talkies are widespread among civilians and fighters, and can sometimes catch signals from other districts depending on the quality of the device. The walkie-talkie method has the added benefit of not requiring an internet connection, which is not always available in some areas of Syria.

“You can’t get a signal for 3G sometimes if you’re not in a high place or if you’re moving, so I keep a walkie-talkie in my car to get warnings while I’m moving.”

However, the decision to use social media and instant messaging networks rather than develop an independent application was made in order to “reach as many people as possible and as quickly as possible,” Diab said, adding that many civilians would be unable to afford new devices capable of running such an application. With Sentry, civilians can tap into the widespread early-warning system through platforms they already use every day.

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