Residents of the northern Homs countryside are living in fear and worry that Russia may be monitoring their communications after Bashar al-Assad’s forces entered in accordance with a deal with rebel groups there in May.
Alsouria Net learned from trusted sources inside the Homs countryside that in July — two months after they entered the area — Russia set up private communications towers. This was followed by arrests and prosecutions of a number of people, who’s internet activity was used against them, which pushed residents to believe that their communications were being monitored.
Russian forces kept in place the communications equipment that provided internet to residents in the northern Homs countryside and which had been present before the regime and its allies returned to the area.
This communications equipment depends on receiving internet from Turkey. It is transported through distributors in northern Syria, providing internet to the northern Homs countryside through specialized equipment, such as “nano stations” that transmit internet signals from one point to another.
A number of residents of the northern Homs countryside, who asked not to be named, told Alsouria Net that Munqaz al-Dali had confiscated communications equipment which had been providing internet to the countryside’s residents, whether the satellite internet used in internet cafes or other communications equipment which had provided connections to homes and is owned by private individuals.
Munqaz al-Dali is a former commander in the Jaish al-Towheed which is part of the Free Syrian Army. He entered a “reconciliation” with the regime and then became the commander of a group in the Air Force Intelligence in the northern Homs countryside, which operates under Col. Suhail al-Hassan, known as “the Tiger”.
According to the testimonies of civilians, Dali returned the confiscated equipment to its owners just days after the reconciliation, which coincided with Russian forces setting up huge quad towers north of Rastan, according to a resident close to the site of the towers. It was not possible for Alsouria Net to verify the nature of these towers, but when people started getting arrested shortly after the towers were erected, fear and suspicion started to grow in the minds of residents.
The towers are located at the Bassil al-Assad Hospital north of Rastan. Other towers were set up at the Engineering Brigade Observatory of the 17th Division north of the city, where Russian forces have been stationed ever since they entered the Homs countryside.
After the Russian towers were set up and the confiscated equipment was returned, Assad’s forces arrested five people and transferred them to court, according to a relative of one of the people arrested in the northern Homs countryside. This sowed fear among residents.
A source told Alsouria Net that the court had accused them of “communicating with terrorists in northern Syria” through the internet.
The mobile phone networks work in specific areas in the northern Homs countryside, but the signal is weak, which pushes residents to use the internet instead.
The same source said that the arrested people were questioned about the nature of the discussions that occurred between them and other people in northern Syria, which is under the control of the Syrian opposition. The source thought it was likely that Russian monitoring was limited to following the movements of users on the network, but that it cannot know the precise content of the messages exchanged on apps like WhatsApp.
The areas which have entered “reconciliations” with the regime have suffered from harassment by Assad’s forces, which have arrested civilians, especially young men, to conscript them into fighting in the regime’s ranks.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.