Saturday 21 December 2013

A Year Of Conflict In Syria In Ten Videos - 10 to 7

With the year coming to an end, and websites across the world producing lists of all things 2013, I thought I'd throw my hat in the arena with a list of ten videos that, for me, defined the last 12 months of the Syria conflict, and the way in which social media and open source media has been used to understand the conflict.  This list is in no particular order, nor does it represent the entirety of the hundreds of thousands of videos produced from Syria in the last twelve months, but I hope they represent both the broad spectrum of videos coming from Syria, as well as some of the more newsworthy videos.

10 - Croatian Weapons On Syrian State TV

At the start of 2013, I started to see new weapons appearing in the south of Syria in videos published by groups belonging to the Free Syrian Army.  When I first saw the weapons appear, I thought that perhaps they were just another example of weapons appearing from the local black-market, but then I saw a report on Syrian State TV that indicated this was something much bigger.  The original video is no longer online, but the footage from the report can be seen in this video from ANNA News at 0:47

As per the English subtitles on the video, Syrian State TV identified at least some of the weapons of being Israeli in origin, but this an example of something I've seen time and time again in Syria, where a much more interesting story is missed because of the attempts to use images as propaganda (another recent example of that is here).

For me, this video was the point where I realised the weapons I had been seeing weren't just a handful of weapons purchased on the black-market, but something much bigger.  I then began to review all the videos posted on YouTube channels, looking for more examples of these weapons, so I could understand what was going on with these weapons.  What I did was actually pretty simple, I watched videos, then documented them on a pretty simple spreadsheet, posting my findings in a series of blog posts.  James Miller on EA Worldview and Michael Weiss on Now Lebanon were the first to pick up on my work, and eventually I compiled the information I had collected into a post for the New York Times' At War blog, which led to the New York Times using the information I had provided to take the investigation further, exposing a smuggling route that involved Croatia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, all with the apparent knowledge of the CIA (more here).

This was a great example of how studying and analysing information posted to social media can help inform traditional methods of investigative journalism. The areas these weapons appeared in were pretty much isolated from the rest of the conflict, at the time the weapons started appearing there were no Western journalists in the area, and it's unclear if they would have been aware of the significance of the weapons, nor the scale of their appearance in the region.  Thanks to nothing more than YouTube videos and a spreadsheet, I was able to gather information that helped expose a secret smuggling operation, and that clearly demonstrates how valuable this open source information can be.

9 - ISIS Executes Three Men In Raqqa

Sometimes it's hard to imagine that less than 9 months ago the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham was barely known, but for me, one video was the clear point where they started to make their mark on the conflict in Syria

The video, posted in May from the city of Raqqa, shows three men being executed in a town square in front of a large crowd.  What was unusual about this video is the group carrying out the executions.  At the time, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, had recently announced Jabhat al-Nusra would merge with the Islamic State of Iraq to form the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.  This video showed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham carrying out the execution, and seemed to be also announcing the arrival of ISIS to the conflict in Syria.

Since the video was published, ISIS has grown to dominate much of the discourse about the Syrian opposition, and they've worked to establish control of  the opposition held areas in the north (detailed here).  To me, this video represents the first time they really made their presence felt in Syria, and it certainly wasn't the only public execution they've carried out in the months since.

8 - How To Make A Hell Cannon

The Syrian conflict has continued to produce a variety of DIY weapons from both sides of the conflict, but this year, one stood out among all others.  The dramatically named "Hell Cannon" first appeared back in late April, and it's arrival was marked with the following video, showing the manufacturing process for the Hell Cannon, and it's ammunition

The group producing the Hell Cannon seemed quite proud of their invention, even producing a statistics sheet for it (more details here)

The Hell Cannon has continued to be a popular choice with opposition forces, with dozens of videos showing it in action posted online, and it even became part of the push back against claims that the government was responsible for the August 21st attacks.  While not the mostly widely used DIY weapon by the opposition, in 2013, it has certainly been the most noticeable.

7 - The Daisy Chain IED Attack

Since early on in the conflict, IEDs have been a mainstay of the Syrian opposition arsenal, but one video stood out from the many IED videos posted online by various opposition groups in Syria

In this very unusual example, 50 IEDs were reportedly linked together, to create a daisy chain of explosions, destroying a convoy.  While many reported cases of IED use in Syria are the various VBIED attacks often used as part of opposition military operations, it shouldn't be forgotten that smaller IEDs have also played a widespread and key role in the conflict.

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