BEIRUT — Two major links with the outside world were shut down Thursday in Syria when Internet access disappeared across the country — raising fears of an impending escalation of the government’s crackdown on the uprising there — and the largest commercial airport in the capital was shut down because of fighting nearby, opponents of the Syrian government said.
Two companies that monitor Internet traffic, Arbor Inc., and Akamai, released data suggesting the outage had continued for several hours since about 10 a.m. Syrian time, and that there was no indication it had stopped. The Internet has been a strategic weapon for the uprising and the government alike, allowing activists to organize and communicate but also exposing them to surveillance. Fighters, activists and ordinary citizens upload video showing rebel exploits and government crackdowns, but video footage has also exposed rebel atrocities.
There were conflicting reports of the reason for the airport closure. An anti-government activist in Beirut said that the airport in Damascus, the capital, had been closed as rebel fighters edged ever closer, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights blamed a fierce government offensive. State media had reported that it was closed for maintenance purposes, but the activist in Beirut said the shutdown was because of “hit-and-run" strikes by rebels intending to force the closure of the facility, a key conduit for supplies and cash for the government. Other activists also reported the closure of the Damascus airport, and several airlines said that they had halted regularly scheduled flights to Syria’s capital.
Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, was quoted on a Lebanese news website as denying reports that the airport road was closed, and declared that the government was not responsible for the Internet outage. There were no immediate reports of the fighting at the commercial airport by state media on Thursday, according to the SANA Twitter feed.
But fighting has been especially intense around Damascus over the past two weeks, with rebels seizing many air bases and weapons, attacking in a string of suburbs around the eastern edge of the city and approaching the airport to the southeast.
Some analysts have speculated that if the government felt its core interests were threatened, the military might unleash a desperate crackdown.
“Deliberately or not, the rebels could be forcing the regime’s hand," said Yezid Sayigh, a military analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.