The US government is trying to figure out how US-made surveillance gear came to be used against Syrian activists. The goods were supposedly bound for Iraq. Did a politically neutral Iraq act as the middle man?
Exactly how a number of US-made Internet filtering devices bound for Iraq, made it to Syria, where they are being used to censor Internet activity by government opposition, remains unclear.
Because of sanctions imposed on Syria by the US government since 2004, these kinds of devices – which can be used to monitor and censor web activity – are not allowed to be sold directly to that country. The US company that manufactures the devices said they only discovered that their goods were being used in Syria when automatic status messages were transmitted back to them. In Syria, the protest does not just play out on the streets. It also takes place in cyberspace, especially as there are hardly any foreign journalists in the country. Opposition activists, who have fully utilized Internet technology to assist in organizing and publicizing their protests, have told international media that they are extremely careful when transmitting information because government forces have used the transmissions in evidence against them.
The US government says it is investigating how the devices got to Syria and Blue Coat Systems of Sunnyvale, the California-based company responsible for manufacturing the equipment, says it is cooperating fully. If the firm deliberately violated the sanctions – which say special permission is required to import this kind of equipment into Syria – then it could be liable for a fine of up to US$1 million.
Although the 14 web monitoring devices were shipped to Dubai late in 2010 from where they were supposed to be sent to Iraq, Iraq itself has denied any involvement in the transaction.
Nonetheless in Iraq, the issue is also causing concern. Since 2004, when the US put into effect the Syria Accountability Act, for what the US sees as Syria’s support of “terrorism, involvement in Lebanon, weapons of mass destruction programs and the destabilizing role it is playing in Iraq”, goods that contain more than 10 per cent componentry that is manufactured in the US have been prohibited from being exported there. However it is quite possible that Syria has been able to obtain embargoed goods through third parties. The question now is what Iraq had to do with the 13 Blue Coat web surveillance devices.
The devices allegedly arrived in Syria in October 2011, the same time that they were supposed to be delivered to Iraq. Earlier in 2011, the US military said that it would provide some types of surveillance equipment to Iraqi security forces so that they could monitor land line telephone conversations and international mobile calls.
However, it does not appear that the Internet surveillance devices of the kind being used in Syria were part of those plans. The Ministry of the Interior has no information about any intentions to provide it with these types of devices. “The Ministry has no plans to import such devices and it hasn’t received any kinds of these devices,” Hussein Kamal Ali, Iraq's Deputy Minister of Intelligence and Information, told NIQASH.
Another source at Iraq’s Ministry of Communications said they had not entered into any import contract for this type of equipment either. “Iraq is still operating a system that is easy to hack,” the source explained.
Others told NIQASH that Syria had managed to import the devices through an intermediary in Dubai. “The Iraqi government discovered that a company in Dubai, called Kul al-Iraq, imported these devices from the US firm, Blue Coat, on behalf of Syria,” MP Saad al-Matlabi, who is a member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ruling coalition, said. “Iraq was not party to this deal.”
However upon examination of the companies register in the United Arab emirates, NIQASH was unable to find a company registered under the name Kul al-Iraq.
Whether anyone in the Iraqi government had anything to do with the Blue Coat devices ending up in Syria remains unclear. However, as Ali al-Jibouri, a professor of political science at Baghdad University, told NIQASH, Iraq was quite possibly the best candidate to act as the middleman between Syria and the US communications systems company.
Iraq recently abstained from voting at a meeting of the Arab League - officially it is the League of Arab States, with 22 members, founded in 1945 in order to strengthen ties between the member states – where the decision was made to suspend Syria’s membership on the basis of the current government’s repressive and brutal crackdown on popular opposition protests. Iraq’s decision not to vote at all was seen as a delicate, diplomatic balancing act that reflected both the tricky make up of the ruling coalition currently in power in Baghdad as well as the need to neither offend nor appease external powers like the US and neighbouring Iran.
All of which means Iraq could have played a kind of neutral “Switzerland” style role in this transaction. Al-Jibouri pointed out that unlike the other nations that support the Syrian regime – Iran and Lebanon among them – which don’t have a relationship with the US that would allow these kinds of imports, Iraq maintains relatively good ties with the US.
Meanwhile the Iraqi government denied that they had anything to do with the export of the communications equipment. “Iraq did not send any equipment to Syria,” Ali al-Moussawi, the media advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, stated to NIQASH. However, as he also added: “Syria is an independent country and has the right to import the devices that it deems appropriate to achieve security in the country.”