As the “Arab Spring” moved from Tunisia to Egypt and onward into numerous other countries in the Middle East, it seemed only a matter of time before Syria was similarly affected. Though a serious threat to the regime did not materialize until March, a recent UN Human Rights Council report makes clear that the Syrian uprising is one of the bloodiest thus far. As of November 8, they estimate that at least 3,500 civilians have been killed by state forces, with that number has rising to a currently estimated 4,000.
Despite increasing pressure from former key allies, particularly Turkey, the killings have shown no sign of ceasing. However, it does appear that Assad’s grip on power is more tenuous than at any point since he took over from his father in 2000. Sanctions are beginning to batter the banking and construction sectors and the Free Syrian Army (made up of Syrian Army defectors) is becoming bolder. Though a comparison with Libya is not exact, especially since NATO intervention is not possible due to Russian and Chinese objections, if Assad was to fall there would be similar fears about civil war amongst Syrians (in this case, the breakdown would be along religious lines rather than tribal). There are also worries that the Syrian government could provoke Israel to divert attention, a tactic that they tried earlier in the year with some success.
The increasingly disturbing aspect has been the government’s cyber war against activists within and without Syria. Activists seemed to have the upper hand early on, mimicking protests in other Arab countries by using Twitter and Facebook to organize. Since then, a pro-government (possibly government-backed) group named the Syrian Electronic Army has aggressively countered them by hacking hundreds of web sites and using Facebook and Twitter to identify activists. Perhaps more unfortunate was the recent revelation that web-monitoring products produced by the California-based NetAPP and Blue Coat were being used by the Syrian government to crack down on dissident. This raises serious questions about how the Syrian government was able to obtain these products despite wide-ranging sanctions.
Commercial export policy is essentially the regulations that guide whether or not certain items may be exported from one country to another. It is especially salient when it comes to the export of “dual use” items, i.e. items that may be used for commercial or military activities. For example, one can look at the relationship between the U.S. and China. There are certain products, such as weapons, that are forbidden by law from being exported to China. However, there are other products, such as computer technology, that are not forbidden but have the potential to be used for military applications. The U.S. has good reason to ensure that the products companies are exporting are used only for their intended purposes and not for purposes which may harm the U.S.’s national security.
With regards to Syria, commercial export policy in the U.S. is implemented by the Treasury Department and the Commerce Department. The Treasury Department is primarily responsible for implementing the sanctions and trade restrictions that have been placed on Syria, while the Commerce Department is responsible for administering the Export Administration Regulations. As part of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, the export of any items on the U.S. munitions list (for example, arms and defense weapons, items with dual civilian-military application, etc) are prohibited, and the export to Syria of U.S. products other than food or medicine is banned.
There are also twenty individuals and entities within Syria that have had financial sanctions imposed on them for various reasons. Given all of this, it is important to note that the Commerce Department states that “Pursuant to the waiver authority exercised by the President in Executive Order 13338, [Bureau of Industry and Security] may consider several categories of items on a case-by-case basis.” This is especially relevant because one such category is “telecommunications equipment and associated computers, technology, and software.”
As the EFF points out, “in March 2010 the Treasury Department announced an amendment to its trade restrictions for Iran, Sudan and Cuba to allow the export of ‘certain services and software incident to the exchange of personal communications over the internet’.” Unfortunately, despite the similar situations faced by activists on the ground, an amendment was not made to the restrictions on exports to Syria. Even today, with a clear need for activists to have access to valuable software, there has been no move to amend trade restrictions towards Syria.
This has given the Syrian government, which has the means and ability to easily circumvent export controls, a clear advantage over the activists. One example of this is the fact that they were able to secure Blue Coat’s technology despite the company denying it had supplied it directly. Meanwhile, activists on the ground are unable to download programs such as Google Earth or Java, and cannot make Skype calls to mobile phones or land lines (though they can make Skype-to-Skype calls). Jillian York of the EFF makes clear the seriousness of this issue by pointing out Tunisian activists claimed Google Earth was immensely useful in their own uprising last December.
A shift in policy with regards to Syria would have wide-ranging ramifications, and not just for Syria itself. If effective, it could provide a framework for future U.S. trade policy when dealing with authoritarian countries.
I am agree with the EFF that trade restrictions towards Syria should be relaxed immediately in order to facilitate Syrian activists’ access to useful technology. In the current environment, most technology companies do not even bother looking for trade exceptions, thinking that the process is too long and cumbersome, and not worth the hassle.Perhaps this technology would only help the movement out at the margins, but the difference between success and failure can sometimes be dependent on seemingly small measures. Lifting the restrictions would also encourage technology companies to come up with new and innovative ways to reach activists within Syria. Whereas now they have no incentive to do so, lifting trade restrictions will send a clear signal that the Obama Administration not only desires but also encourages technology transfer to activists on the ground. Furthermore, as York points out, these moves would be more in keeping with the 1988 Berman Amendment which “strips the President of his power to ‘directly or indirectly’ regulate the export of ‘information and informational materials’.”
Such a shift would also have implications for other authoritarian governments in the region and around the world. As we have seen with the “Arab Spring”, the internet can be a powerful force for change, though clearly an impassioned citizenry that demands reform is a necessary precondition. Lifting trade restrictions on internet technology that assists activists, while developing stronger safeguards against the transfer of censorship and repressive technology will undoubtedly help activists the world over. Though these technologies are not a panacea, they are certainly helpful in organizing and planning by activists. Making it easier for activists to do so, while concurrently making it harder for authoritarian governments to censor and eavesdrop, will do much to balance the scales currently favoring authoritarian governments.
However, one awkward problem is, outside of Syria and Iran, the U.S. has strong ties with most other authoritarian or semi-authoritarian countries in the Middle East (for example, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, etc.) Such a shift could therefore cause tension between the U.S. and our allies if they believed we were trying to undermine regime stability. However, the U.S. should point out that the onus is on other nations to block technology rather than the responsibility of the U.S. government. The point is not that movements within other nations always benefit the U.S.’s national security; rather, it is to simply state the U.S. should not be picking and choosing which countries have access to technology such as Google Earth or Google Chrome. Authoritarian governments would then have to decide on their own whether or not to place greater restrictions on internet access to counteract these U.S. moves.