The other Syria debate: cyber weapons

A cyberattack on Syria could crash enemy systems, interfere with air defenses and spare civilian lives.

syria map

While a debate over military intervention in Syria rages on Capitol Hill, in other parts of the government a different conversation is quietly taking place.

In the Pentagon, at Fort Meade and in D.C. think tanks, a discussion is unfolding over the use of cyber weapons against Syria, including the merits, the likelihood and the logistics of such an attack. Military officials are not commenting on the potential use of the cyber arsenal, but many others are, particularly after the release of the classified black budget that shed some light on U.S. covert cyber operations.

The $52.6 billion black budget funds much of the intelligence community, including the National Security Agency, which likely would take the lead on a cyber strike on Syria – at least behind the curtain. Certain components of the U.S. military would execute such a mission.

The U.S. Cyber Command "is the agency charged with carrying out such activities, but, of course, they would get a lot of help from NSA, in both its role as a combat support agency and as the group most likely to have the taps into the systems that CyberCom would want to get into and disrupt," said Martin Libicki, RAND senior management scientist. "I cannot rule out other IC entities, such as the CIA, from having independent capabilities that might be brought to bear; such capabilities are likely to be quite black and it is entirely possible that no one person in the IC knows of all of them."

Such capabilities could feasibly include those that intelligence agencies have used to hack into foreign computers and networks, including under a $652 million program code-named GENIE, an operation revealed in the Washington Post's publication of the black budget documents. In 2011, U.S. intelligence agencies conducted 231 such operations hacking into overseas networks, the documents revealed.

Tools for a cyberattack on Syria could involve the use of the military's expansive digital arsenal to gain access to enemy systems and execute commands that would crash those systems or cause physical damage – as seen in the attacks last year on the Saudi state oil company, in which 30,000 computers were destroyed.

A cyber campaign against Syria could mean disabling air defenses, interrupting communications or other, more technical effects.

"We are looking at the intersection between things we want to happen – which is a function of the overall game plan for Syria – and things we can make happen, which is a function of which systems can generate commands that put military assets at risk ... plus which systems the U.S. can get into," Libicki said.

Speaking to The Hill, Jim Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of the Technology and Public Policy Program, said he fully expects cyber to be part of any military response in Syria.

"I think that's a certainty," Lewis said. "If you see any air attack against Syria, cyber would be part of the supporting effort. Interfering with Syrian air defense – that's almost a given."

Not only could cyber weapons disrupt military command and control, they also could disable critical infrastructure, such as the Syrian power grid, which would disable military units depending on it but avoid long-term destruction, noted Jason Healey, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

A cyber campaign also would remain in line with international law and would avert the physical devastation of traditional bombs, Healey pointed out in a piece he wrote for Defense One. It also would help lift the negative, secretive shroud surrounding U.S. cyber capabilities in wake of what has leaked in the media.

"By sparing the lives of Syrian troops and nearby civilians, an opening cyber operation against Syria could demonstrate exactly how such capabilities can be compliant with international humanitarian law," Healey wrote. "European allies would see an operation within the norms of shared transatlantic principles, not at odds with them like Stuxnet or PRISM."

But would those allies actually get involved in a cyber offensive against Syria? The answer is unclear, but the clues are not necessarily promising. Consider, for example, the countries involved in the 2011 coalition operation in Libya: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Qatar, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. While it is unknown if those countries would be involved in an attack on Syria, none are known to have extensive cyber capabilities, and if they did, their potential involvement would likely be highly secretive.

"On one hand, countries loathe to intervene publicly may nevertheless be willing to intervene covertly, particularly by doing things where no one is physically at risk. On the other hand, countries are very reluctant to share intelligence sources and methods, and a country that has a tap into a system that the U.S. does not may be reluctant to reveal as much," Libicki said. "It's less a matter of capabilities and more a matter of access. The U.S. is second to none in terms of capabilities."

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