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Lessons from Syria, now helping Ukraine

March 23, 2022

Researchers spent years collecting evidence of Russian war crimes in Syria, using everything from social media to satellite images. Open-source research has evolved. Could it help bring justice to Ukraine faster?

Deutschland Prozess um Verbechen im syrischen Bürgerkrieg in Koblenz
Image: Bernd Lauter/Getty Images/AFP

Russian attacks on Ukraine bear many similarities to those witnessed in Syria. In both countries, Russian bombs have hit civilian infrastructure, schools and kindergartens, hospitals and markets. Some of these incidents may qualify as war crimes under international humanitarian law.

In Ukraine and Syria, such incidents are being tracked by open-source researchers. The community of amateur and professional online investigators use freely available information — hence the name "open source" — to collect and verify a broad spectrum of incidents.

In Ukraine, open-source investigators are gathering videos posted to social media of missile attacks, counting destroyed tanks and collating the names of soldiers killed. Some investigators work remotely from anywhere in the world while others are in the country. Open-source investigators did similar over the past 11 years in Syria.

Syrians show solidarity with Ukrainians

A field that grew up in Syria

But while in Syria, the field of online open-source research was only just evolving, in Ukraine it has matured.

"Everything that happened in Syria, as well as what happened in Ukraine between 2014 and 2017, really laid the groundwork for what is happening today," said Eliot Higgins, founder of one of the world's leading open-source research organizations, Bellingcat. "It was basically in Syria where we learned all the processes we are now using with Ukraine. It's also where we built a  lot of the relationships we now have with the tech community, with accountability organizations, policymakers and others."

Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat's founder.
Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat's founderImage: Tolga Akmen/Getty Images/AFP

Mnemonic, a Berlin-based non-profit, is playing a major part in these efforts. Mnemonic started off with the Syrian Archive, which was set up to preserve digital evidence of human rights violations during the Syrian war.

The archive was founded in 2014 by Syrian journalist and digital security expert Hadi al-Khatib after he noticed activists did not have a central place to store videos and other material they collected in Syria. Potential evidence of war crimes was also being lost.

Since then, al-Khatib and his team founded a Yemeni Archive, a Sudanese Archive and, as of this past month, began work on a Ukrainian Archive to store materials Bellingcat identifies as important.

"It only took us a few days to set up the Ukraine Archive," al-Khatib explained. "We knew how to do it and we know there are certain standards and protocols that need to be in place for preserving this material," he said.

If the digital material is to be used in court, the organization needs to be able to show where it came from and that it hasn't been manipulated. "It took us years to get to that stage with material from Syria," al-Khatib said. "We learned it all there."

Additionally, al-Khatib pointed out that Mnemonic has already been training Ukrainian activists on how to work with raw material — it's advice Syrian activists didn't get until much later.

Familiarity with war crimes

There are other unhappy lessons open-source researchers learned from Syria.

"When we saw cluster munitions being used in Ukraine, we recognized them more easily," al-Khatib told DW. "We knew them from Syria. We knew what they sounded like and how there are lots of different small explosions happening at the same time, in a random pattern."

Thanks to Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure, hospitals and even farms in Syria, Mnemonic also established what al-Khatib calls "better pattern analysis."

He explained that there are certain indicators that more or less show that, for example, a hospital was not accidentally hit by a Russian missile.

"You need to be able to prove intent, and we now have a clear workflow for that," al-Khatib said. "We understand how to do that now because what happened in Aleppo in 2016 is happening in Mariupol and Kharkiv now."

Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings following a reported air strike on the rebel-held Salihin neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo.
Al-Khatib: 'What happened in Aleppo in 2016 is happening in Ukraine now'Image: Ameer Alhalbi/Getty Images/AFP

The technology involved has also changed a lot, added Sam Dubberley, who heads Human Rights Watch's digital investigations lab. Cameras on mobile phones are better, and so is Internet connectivity, he pointed out.

In Ukraine, over 70% of the population had Internet access before the war began, according to the World Bank.

Open-source investigations are also now seen as credible and necessary, Dubberley noted.

"Back in 2011 [when the Syrian revolution began], we were really working out what all this meant and how to use it," he explained. "Today, we have more advanced conversations immediately, and we don't have to convince anyone of the importance of this work."

What's often called "open-source intelligence" has been used since World War II, when intelligence agencies began to monitor foreign media outlets. Today, thanks to the vast amount of online resources, open-source researchers use everything from social media platforms, to flight or shipping trackers to satellites pictures and unsecured conversations over radios or phones.

A man holds a child as he flees the city of Irpin, west of Kyiv.
Fleeing the Ukrainian city of IrpinImage: Aris Messinis/Getty Images/AFP

An opportunity to demand accountability

It is usually not possible to use open source research on its own when it comes to bringing legal cases against war criminals or for an organization like his to publish a "unimpeachable" report on an incident, Dubberley said. Additional material, such as interviews with eye witnesses, is required, he noted, and this takes time.

Bellingcat's Higgins pointed out that, as the field has gained in importance and attention, there are more open source researchers than ever too. "By growing our audience, we become more effective as an organization," he said. 

Al-Khatib pointed out another important factor in the current evolution of open source investigations, on the timeline from Syria to Ukraine. "It's also about the political will," he argued. "There are a lot of European countries and organizations opening investigations and accountability cases on Ukraine right now. It was much more of a struggle for us to do that with Syria. I think they should also consider what Russia did in Syria," he concluded. "It's very important for us. It's the same thing, just in different countries."

"A lot of the people working on Ukraine are the same people who have seen Russia getting away with this in Syria for years," Higgins concluded. "So there's frustration and even anger. That is motivating a lot of people. They see this as an opportunity to make sure there is accountability."

Edited by: Sean Sinico

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