Western technology has played a key role in providing the Syrian regime with tools to track and repress citizens for years. The latest Wikileaks files on Syria, which include more than two million emails from political figures and companies, reveal that the involvement of Western companies in the crackdown against Syrian citizens has continued despite sanctions and international pressure.
Supplying support for communications equipment
According to emails published by Wikileaks on 5 July, Italian defence company Finmeccanica has been supplying support for communications equipment to the Syrian regime since 2008. That year Selex Elsag, a branch of Finmeccanica, signed a contract with the Syrian Wireless Organization through the leading Greek telecommunications firm Intracom S.A. to supply high-tech radios. It agreed to increase the size of the contract in May 2011, by which time unrest had already spread across the country.
Finmeccanica-Selex Elsag is not the first Western firm involved in aiding the Syrian regime. Logs released by the activist group Telecomix last year exposed that the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment had been using U.S. company Bluecoat devices in order to filter and monitor HTTP connections in the country. (Note: A U.S. Department of Commerce spokesperson acknowledged in April this year that Blue Coat is under investigation.) Area SpA, a surveillance company based outside Milan, worked for years on installing a system that would allow the Syrian government “to dip into virtually any corner of the Internet in the country”, as well as into mobile phones, fixed lines and vehicles. Shortly before completing the project and amid media pressure against its support of the crackdown against Syrian citizens, Area announced it would exit the project. Selex, however, has continued supplying the Syrian regime.
As sanctions began to pose problems with the supply chain, Selex worked hard to find alternative ways to source the components for the project. In February 2012, almost a year after the beginning of the uprisings and when the death toll had already reached 10,000, it was confirmed that company representatives visited Damascus to train Syrian Intracom Telecom engineers. The relationship with the Syrian regime compromises not only the company but also the Italian government, since Selex is under the control of Rome.
Advice on PR and communications
Technology supply is not the only support received by the Syrian regime from Western companies. Other emails published by Wikileaks reveal that the communications firm Brown Lloyd James has been offering the regime advice on PR and communications. An email sent to senior Asma al-Assad aide Fares Kallas on May 19 2011 offers specific guidance on how to win the media battle:
If hard power is necessary to quell rebellion, soft power is needed to reassure the Syrian people and outside audiences that reform is proceeding apace
The email, sent under the subject “Crisis communication analysis”, includes a list of measures to contain stories that might affect the government´s image abroad. The stories are described by Brown Lloyd James as “negative media stories circulated by opposition figures living outside Syria”, which the firm offers recommendations to counteract:
- 24-hour media monitoring and response system should be in place with assets in UK and US markets
- Social media sites should be monitored and false sites should be challenged and removed
- A steady, constantly updated messaging document that contains talking points geared to latest developments
In addition to these measures, the firm insists that “efforts should be made to convey normalcy and a contrast to current news depicting Syria as being on the verge of chaos.” It also recommends appealing to Syrians’ patriotism and intensifying the presence of the First Lady, in order “to show strength and sympathy at once.”
The guidance offered by Brown Lloyd James is consistent with a strategy that the regime has been developing for decades: denying the opposition's legitimacy and focusing on improving the government´s image inside the country and abroad, instead of implementing real changes on the ground.
There is a clear relationship between the technology provided by companies such as Finmeccanica and the crackdown against opponents in Syria. By legitimizing and offering support to the regime´s narrative, Brown Lloyd James also contributes to hindering the Syrian people´s struggle for freedom and justice. Both examples, which may not be the last ones, prove the inconsistency between Western official discourse, which highlights the need to isolate the regime, and the lack of will to end a profitable economic relationship.
Thanks to Wassim Zabad for his help searching the files.