Jeffrey LewisCrowdsourcing Scud Launches

Sonni Efron has an article online at the TheAtlantic.com detailing the efforts of a Syrian activist to crowd-source missile launches [link fixed] against civilians in Aleppo and other opposition-held areas:

[Dishad] Othman’s SCUD early warning system began operating on Wednesday. It is called Aymta, which means “when” in Arabic. Users can opt to receive alerts by phone, text message, SMS, e-mail or RSS feed, or, if the regime cuts off internet access, as it often does, via a broadcast on satellite television or radio frequencies outside of regime control. Within the first 24 hours, 16,000 people viewed his website and 87 had registered to receive his alerts – although up to 40 percent of Syria was reportedly experiencing power outages at the time. Two satellite television stations also signed up for alerts. Some Syrians have already registered from abroad to track impending attacks on their hometowns and alert their families.

Reactions posted on Othman’s social media pages range from joy to disbelief.

“Thank God,” typed one fan over and over.

“The idea is great but this is a luxury,” wrote another from Aleppo. “Most people here in Syria do not have communications or sometimes power and will never get these warnings.”

Othman believes that forces loyal to President Bashir al-Assad have not fired a SCUD at civilians since a June 20 SCUD-D was fired at Aleppo at 11:45 p.m. from al Qalamon in the Damascus countryside. But when the next SCUD goes up, Othman is confident that his text messages will reach some people before the missile.

[snip]

In Syria, most of the casualties from missile attacks are caused by buildings collapsing onto people. Othman says merely instructing people to run out into the street or into a basement would increase the odds of survival. SCUDs are among the slowest of missiles, and in theory, a few minutes’ warning should be enough, especially if activists in the target zones rig up local public address systems to sound air raid sirens when Aymta sends a warning.

Since I am listed as having “advised” Othman, I think a blog post is in order.

I met Othman through Efron, who is a former journalist, State Department official and now a fellow at Human Rights First.  I’ve made a few suggestions here and there, but Aymta is Othman’s brain-child.  If it helps, he and his colleagues deserve the credit for establishing the system.  I’ve purposely remained ignorant of all the details beyond the basic facts outlined in the article. (Although I am obviously really interested in Syria’s Scud force.)

I think the Aymta warning system is potentially valuable for at least two reasons. First, early warning of incoming missile attacks can save lives if people leave their buildings. Even very imperfect warning may be valuable.  Once a Scud slams into a neighborhood, residents will want to know if more missiles are incoming or if it is safe to go back inside. Second, Syria is launching missile attacks to terrorize civilians.  There is value to doing something, even if that something is imperfect, to counteract feelings of helplessness.  If the missile attacks are intended to demoralize Syrian civilians by making them feel vulnerable and powerless, Aymta serves as a reminder of the power of collective action in the face of a threat.

Then there is the third reason — to encourage the US government to provide missile warning information to Syrian civilians. One of my complaints about the debate over “arming” Syrian opposition forces relates to the fact that the US was providing substantial humanitarian and nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition even before recent rumblings about providing arms of one sort or another. There is a real conversation about the benefits of simply making good on past promises and whether the US might expand the types of help available within the “non-lethal” category.  Providing missile warning to Syrian civilians seems like an obvious step.  In 1991, the United States provided warning of Scud attacks to Israel and Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm.  A discussion of the technical issues with providing this data is beyond the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say: I think the very smart people in the US military can find a way to get a few minutes of warnings to civilians if our political leadership asks them.

Comments

  1. Derek (History)

    The initial link may better read “wants to crowdsouce warnings of Scud missile launches” vs “crowd-source missile launches” (which suggested, to me at least, something altogether different).

  2. FlamesInTheDesert (History)

    One wonders why assad would waste his most valuable long range weapons when he has far better shorter ranged weapons than can be used in larger numbers with much better accuracy

    • George William Herbert (History)

      It’s 300+ km from Damascus to Aleppo…

      They have non-Scud missiles with that range, but most by inventory count in that range class seem to be Scuds (Scud-B, Scud-C, Scud-D).

  3. MS (History)

    Why waste a D on that range? Either it was wrongly reported and it was a B, or the D is something different than commonly assumed.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The “Scud X” nomenclature is apparently uneven from country to country. http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/4383/libyas-scud-b-force

      In the case of Syria, it seems the “Scud D” is something produced by Syria with lots of North Korean help. If that is correct — and who really knows — then it might not have the full 700 km range and/or may simply be what’s in stock.

      An interesting question, really.

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