Ever since Syria's nationwide insurrection erupted in March, the Baathist regime's relentless military crackdown against civilian protesters has been well-documented. Less well-known, perhaps, is the government's attempts to open a second front against its opponents – an online campaign of cyber warfare.
When the EU blacklisted 18 individuals this week, adding them to a list of Syrian officials targeted by sanctions and asset freezes, among those selected were regime diehards working for the so-called Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a shadowy, amorphous network of President Bashar al-Assad supporters, which is dedicated to undermining the anti-government protest movement.
"We're so scared of these kinds of people," said an activist from Damascus, who spoke to The Independent on condition of anonymity.
He said that members of the SEA, which was praised by an embattled Assad during a speech he made back in June, was comprised of Baathist loyalists who are trying to sabotage anti-government demonstrations. "They search Facebook and join our groups so they can know about our organisation and protests," he said.
For a pro-democracy movement that relies so heavily on the blanket of anonymity provided by the internet – with hundreds of activist cells co-ordinating online and comprised of members who often never even know each other's names – the malicious intent of groups like the SEA can have a corrosive effect.
"I can't be sure about all the guys I have contact with," said the activist, a young man in his early twenties who co-ordinates demonstrations in Damascus using Skype and Facebook. "In the past, we have told people about demonstrations online and then when we meet there are security people who knew about the protest."
The SEA is also accused of creating pro-regime Facebook pages, declaring their love of Bashar al-Assad, and even hacking into the website of Harvard University.