What Russia taught Syria: When you destroy a city, make sure no one — not even the story — gets out alive.
BY ROBERT YOUNG PELTON | MARCH 2, 2012
It was a star-filled night in Chechnya’s besieged capital of Grozny. The snow crunched under my feet as I walked with the Chechen rebel commander away from the warmth of our safe house. When we entered a bombed-out neighborhood 15 minutes away, I put the battery in my Iridium satellite phone and waited for the glowing screen to signal that I had locked on to the satellites.
I made my call. It was short. Then the commander made a call; he quickly hung up and handed me back the phone. “Enough,” he said, motioning for me to remove the battery.
As we walked briskly back to the safe house, it was exactly 10 minutes before the cascade of double wa-whumps announced the Grad rocket batteries pounding the vacant neighborhood we had just left.
It was December 1999, and the Russian assault on Grozny was unfolding in all its gruesome detail. After the dissolution of so much of the former Soviet empire, Chechnya was one country that the newly minted prime minister, Vladimir Putin, refused to let go of. His boss, Boris Yeltsin, and the Russian army had been defeated and then humiliated in the media by Chechen forces in the first war. Five years later, Russia was back. And Putin’s new strategy was unbending: silence, encircle, pulverize, and “cleanse.” It was a combination of brutal tactics — a Stalinist purge of fighting-age males plus Orwellian propaganda that fed Russians a narrative wherein Chechen freedom fighters were transformed into Islamist mercenaries and terrorists. More than 200,000 civilians were to die in this war, the echoes of which continue to this day.
This time, journalists were specifically targeted to prevent sympathetic or embarrassing reports from escaping the killing zone. As such, you can’t find a lot of stories about the second Chechen war. One of the few and best accounts was written by Marie Colvin, who described her terrifying escape from Grozny for the Sunday Times. Last month, Colvin thought she could roll the dice and enter the besieged Syrian city of Homs to defy yet another brutal war of oppression. This time she lost.
It’s impossible to know whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a longtime ally of Russia — studied the success of the last Chechen war before launching his own assault on the restive city of Homs. However, his Russian military advisors surely know the tactics well. The crackdown in Homs carries a grim echo of Grozny, both in its use of signals intelligence to track down and silence the regime’s enemies and in its bloody determination to obliterate any opposition, including Western journalists.
Assad’s ability to lethally target journalists using satellite-phone uplinks could well have cost Colvin her life. Multiple reports have suggested that Syrian forces used phone signals to pinpoint her location and then launched a rocket barrage that resulted in her death on Feb. 22, along with that of French photographer Remi Ochlik and multiple Syrian civilians.
The use of satellite and cellular transmissions to determine a subject’s location was relatively new a decade ago, when I was in Grozny. Tracking phone transmissions to hunt down targets began in earnest with a covert unit of U.S. intelligence officers from the National Security Agency (NSA), CIA, Navy, Air Force, and special operations called “The Activity.” This snooping unit was also called the Army of Northern Virginia, Grey Fox, and even Task Force Orange. We see much of this technology used to inform modern drone and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command strikes. My decade covering U.S. spec ops, intelligence gathering, and their contractors highlighted the impressive ability of various countries to monitor, locate, network, and act on what is called SIGINT, or signals intelligence.
The Russians have their own version of this capability, which fell under the command of the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, now part of the Federal Protective Service. In the United States, it would be equivalent to the NSA and FBI combined, and the agency provides sophisticated eavesdropping support to Russia’s military, intelligence, and counterterrorism units — and to Russia’s allies, including Syria.
Russia has spent a long time perfecting these techniques. On April 21, 1996, Chechnya’s breakaway president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was speaking on a satellite phonewith Russian envoy Konstantin Borovoi about setting peace talks with Yeltsin. During the phone call, he was killed by a signal-guided missile fired from a Russian jet fighter. The warplane had received Dudayev’s coordinates from a Russian ELINT (electronic intelligence) plane that had picked up and locked on to the signal emitted by the satellite phone. It was Russian deception and brutality at its finest.
It should have been clear even back then that there was a benefit and a distinct penalty to modern communications on the battlefield.
Flash forward to Syria today. The opposition Free Syrian Army is officially run by a former air force colonel who commands a barely organized group of army defectors supported by energetic youth. They rely almost entirely on cell-phone service, satellite phones, the Internet, and social media to organize and communicate. Early in February, according to a Fox News report, Qatar provided 3,000 satellite phones, which the Syrian rebels have used to upload numerous impactful videos and stories.
These past few weeks, under a barrage of mortar, tank, and artillery shells, their plaintive calls for help from inside the besieged Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs sparked international outrage. But without Western journalists filing for newspapers and television outlets, these videos — mostly shaky, low-resolution footage of corpses and artillery strikes — wouldn’t have had the impact they deserve.
In a welcome resurgence of non-embedded journalism, brave reporters like Colvin and many others risked their lives to enter Homs and report from the ground. What they showed us was moving, horrific, and embarrassing. Once again, Western governments were caught doing nothing — while women, children, and innocents were murdered by their own government. It’s a playbook the Syrians are good at: The shelling of Homs began on Feb. 3, 2012 — exactly 30 years after the Hama massacre, in which Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, killed up to 15,000 civilians over three weeks in a similar program of wanton destruction.
What we haven’t seen as clearly is the extent to which the Syrian regime (thanks to its Russian advisors) now has the tools of electronic warfare to crush this popular uprising — and anything that happens to get in the way. Syria is one of Russia’s biggest clients for weapons, training, and intelligence. In return for such largesse, it has offered the Russian Navy use of Tartus, a new deep-water military port in the Mediterranean. Moscow sold Damascus nearly $1 billion worth of weapons in 2011, despite growing sanctions against the oppressive Assad regime. With these high-tech weapons comes the less visible Russian-supplied training on technologies, tactics, and strategies.
The sounds of rockets pulverizing civilians should have brought back memories and warnings to Colvin. She would have recognized all the signs from her previous reporting in Chechnya, where she and her escorts were hunted relentlessly by Russian domestic security agents who sought to arrest, silence, or kill any journalist attempting to report on the slaughter of civilians.
My time in Grozny included being surrounded three times by the Russian army, numerous direct bombardments, and frequent close calls. I paid attention to the safety warnings of the Chechen rebel commanders who kept me alive. These rebels were once part of the Soviet military and intelligence apparatus and were fully schooled in Russia’s dirty tricks. They taught me much. Chief among them was not communicating electronically while in country, not trusting “media guides,” and never telling people where I was going. If captured by Russian troops, they urged me — for my own safety — to say that I had been kidnapped by Chechen forces.
Just as I exited Chechnya, I met Colvin, who was heading in. She wanted to know as much as she could. I warned her of the duplicity and violent intent of the Russian military and their Chechen proxies. Despite my warnings, she bravely entered Chechnya and wrote riveting, award-winning stories that now sound almost identical to her coverage from Syria.
I was distressed to read of Colvin’s death in Syria, and even more distressed to think she might still be alive now if she had remembered some basic warnings. Her first error was that she stayed inside the rebel “media center” — in reality, a four-story family home converted to this use as it was one of the few places that had a generator.
The second was communication. The Syrian army had shut down the cell-phone system and much of the power in Baba Amr — and when journalists sent up signals it made them a clear target. After CNN’s Arwa Damon broadcast live from the “media center” for a week, the house was bombarded until the top floor collapsed. Colvin may have been trapped, but she chose to make multiple phone reports and even went live on CNN and other media channels, clearly mentioning that she was staying in the bombed building.
The third mistake was one of tone. She made her sympathies in the besieged city clearly known as she emotionally described the horrors and documented the crimes of the Syrian government.
Unsurprisingly, the next day at 9 a.m., a barrage of rockets was launched at the “media center.” She was killed — along her cameraman, Remi Ochlik, and at least 80 Syrian civilians across the city — targeted with precision rocket barrages, bombs, and the full violence of the Syrian army.
In Grozny, Russian forces decided that they would eliminate everything, everybody, and every voice that stood up to the state — including journalists who tried to enter. Syria has clearly made the same determination in Homs. This military action is intended to be a massacre, a Stalinist-style lesson to those who dare defy the rulers of Syria.
The United Nations estimates that more than 7,500 Syrians have so far been killed in the yearlong spasm of violence there. Perhaps this ghastly toll would be even higher now if brave reporters like Colvin had not entered. With the recent news that the rebels have retreated from the bombardment of Baba Amr to safer territory, Assad’s forces, as well as their Russian advisors, are claiming victory. According to official news reports from the Syrian Information Ministry, “the foreign-backed mercenaries and armed terrorist groups” have fled, the corpses of three Western journalists have been “discovered,” and Homs is now “peaceful.”
Despite what Damascus claims, this fight is not yet over. And we need more brave and bright journalists who will shine a light in places like Syria, where a regime works diligently to plunge its people into darkness. But let’s not forget whose callous playbook they’re using.