Syria's Assad regime is conducting a deadly and very personal counterattack on its most dangerous enemy: information.
Syria is now the most crucial battleground in the Counter-Information War waged by closed societies -- societies closed by brute force and elite whim -- against human beings who would open these societies of fear to scrutiny and accountability.
Iran's sectarian tyrants, China's communists and Russia's KGB government know Syria's war is theirs, as well. So Iran and Russia provide arms, and China offers a diplomatic shield.
"Information" is a broad term. The Counter-Information War waged by tyrants and oligarchs is directed first against information that undermines their power. No startling news in this. Twelfth-century B.C. low-tech tribal chiefs employed jailers and executioners to silence inconvenient critics. Twentieth-century totalitarian secret police continued their repugnant tradition.
The tyrants' second target distinguishes the 21st century's battle: digital connectivity.
Dictatorships need fear. Isolation, in a jail cell or police state, promotes fear. Information isolation also stymies the introduction of dangerous ideas, like freedom.
Connectivity introduces ideas. It reduces isolation, though it doesn't eliminate it. The cellphone has evolved into a communicator's Swiss army knife. As digital information, audio, video and text flow from one human palm to another. A husband on a Damascus street corner can tell his wife in London he loves her. He can also show her the secret police targeting him and provide real-time video of his murder.
Geographic distance still matters, as does the strength to thwart murderers with democratic military force. Knowledge alone won't save the husband -- that requires a platoon of soldiers, probably engaged in regime change. However, the political impact of the tragic video may bring the regime's demise a day closer.
In March 2011, Google executive Wael Ghonim delivered a speech in Cairo (recorded at TED.com) that discussed digital connectivity's role in Egypt's Arab Spring. Egyptians learned, "I am not alone; there are a lot of people who are frustrated; there are a lot of people who share the same dream." Ghonim declared fear-freed Egyptians believed in victory "because they don't play the dirty game and they have dreams of a better life, dignity for every Egyptian." He asserted, "The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power."
Give the man his Pollyannaish techno-enthusiasm -- Hosni Mubarak had quit. Opening a society closed by fear permits dignified dreams, but it also releases Pandoran demons. In Egypt, dirty gamers thrive: Islamist militants, corrupt officers, various terrorists. War and revolution are violent struggles. Digital connectivity without honest soldiers leads to smashed cellphones and murder. We won't know Arab Spring's Egyptian outcome for another two decades.
In Libya and Syria, the tyrants didn't quit. Bashar al-Assad is craftier than Moammar Gadhafi, who threatened to fill mass graves with corpses. In 1982, Syrian forces under Hafez al-Assad (Bashir's father) massacred at least 10,000 rebels in the city of Hama. In that pre-Internet era, the regime hid the killing fields. No more. Reprisal killings now require deft targeting, like rocketing a rebel press center in the Baba Amr district of the city of Homs. Killing two digitally connected Western journalists in that attack (Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik) was a Counter-Information bonus.
Syria, like Iran, has tried to cut communications, with some success, but a full digital blackout is difficult. Its border leaks via Turkish and Iraqi cell towers. But last August ,rebels told Mobilemedia.com, "On days when a lot of people are killed, the government will just shut down the Internet." Syria now screens transmissions. Mobilemedia reported that rebels are afraid to use Twitter and Facebook. Regime loyalists monitor the Internet, identify rebels, then the secret police arrive. China, another counter-information front, has honed this tactic.
"Counter-Information" suggests the Counter-Reformation. Though the analogy is weak, the historical impact is comparable. The Reformation shook Europe's status quo. The Peace of Westphalia (which ended the 30 Years' War and the Counter-Reformation) introduced the sovereign nation-state system, which changed the world. Communications connectivity challenges closed and powerful nation-states. The Counter-Information War will continue.