Between observatories and “Sentry” online service… airstrikes warnings save lives in Idlib

A man working as an observer to alert civilians of potential airstrikes - 2016 (SMART)

A man working as an observer to alert civilians of potential airstrikes - 2016 (SMART)


Idlib – Yousef Ghuraibi

Idlib, winter of 2018, Kosai Khateeb, a man in his twenties, was sitting at home with his wife and baby, who at the time was under one year of age when his neighbor called his name warning of an approaching airstrike.

People’s anxious movement raised Khateeb’s curiosity, who had no idea what was going on until he realized that his neighbor was not holding a wireless communication device (walkie-talkie) and had no idea of the warning.

Minutes later, the Russian warplane arrived and dropped bombs on the neighborhood, as Khateeb tried to leave the building to avoid being injured.

Khateeb and his family survived the airstrike, which killed 14 people from the neighborhood due to the collapse of an entire building on its inhabitants.

Nevertheless, Khateeb was hit by shrapnel from glass blown by the shock waves from the bombs, and only then he realized the importance of the observatories’ work in a land that forgot the meaning of peace.

“Radio wave 16” always on

The residents of northwestern Syria were accustomed to the constant interference sound, as the wireless communication device was their companion during the successive military campaigns of the Syrian regime’s forces on their areas.

Despite the state of nervousness that affects the listeners, “radio wave 16” has been their way out of death many times.

On 5 May 2019, a human observer in Jabal al-Zawiya released a warning by saying, “those from Hass town respond immediately to the air raid warning.”

The rapid response to the warning enabled the “Pulse of Life” Hospital staff to evacuate it in time, before being hit by the Russian missile that targeted the hospital directly, as documented by the media activist Saad Zidan.

The observatory’s warning, which was able to detect the location coordinates of the Russian warplane’s target via radio frequencies, did not only save lives in the shelled and targeted hospital but also helped in other ways.

The warning helped “The New York Times” newspaper accuse Russia directly of targeting hospitals and health centers even though the United Nations (UN) has provided it with these places’ location coordinates to keep them from bombing and military operations.

What is the work of an observatory?

During the war years and because of the suffering of Syrian civilians from the bombing of their communities and vital centers, human observatories were established to intercept military airports’ conversations and detect their targets before the arrival of the warplanes.

The observatories gained experience from past military operations, according to “Sheikh Ahmed,” a thirty-year-old man who has been in charge of an observatory since 2012.

The observatories can distinguish between the types of warplanes and helicopters, the place they took off from, and the targeted location at times.

“We warn people in the targeted areas after monitoring and following up radio frequencies through special devices,” Ahmed said.

Human observatories are scattered across Idlib province, and they communicate “to increase experience and exchange information,” as Ahmed pointed to Enab Baladi.

He pointed out that more than 50 observing points were distributed alternately to monitor the regime and its allies’ military airbases.

On the other hand, Khateeb thinks that walkie-talkies that broadcast the constant monitoring of military observatories are not flawless warning devices, with the possibility of them running out of charge.

These observatories release immediate and rapid warnings that lots of times lack “accuracy,” which prompted the “Syrian Civil Defense (SCD)” to develop a service called the Alrasid, or “Sentry” in August 2016.

The online Sentry service gives accurate warnings to civilians at risk of airstrikes, only seconds late from the departure of the warplane from its base, which was described by Khateeb as a “priceless” service.

Accurate warnings

The coordinator of the early-warning system (Sentry project) designed by the Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), Mohammed Diab, told Enab Baladi that the SCD provides a warning service regarding military aerial activity in Syria before the airstrikes. These alerts are published through social media channels such as “Twitter” and “Telegram.”

The service is based on “reliable” civilian spotters, analyzing and predicting warnings, and calculating the estimated time needed for the warplanes to reach their targeted zones. Moreover, a specialized team verifies the warnings before posting them online on a 24-hour basis.

Diab believes that the Sentry service level of accuracy and early warning is greater than those verbal warnings transferred through wireless communication devices.

Diab added the Sentry service provides warnings seven to ten minutes before the arrival of the warplanes.

The Sentry’s network of sensors triggers air raid sirens or light warning devices distributed in medical facilities. The SCD’s early-warning system team aims to increase the service’s participants and organizes training courses for how to use the service, the latest of which was exclusively directed for women.

The coordinator of the women centers in the SCD, Zahra al-Diab, said to Enab Baladi that the Sentry service team devoted online sessions for women to overcome the technical obstacles they face while using the service.

These sessions came after the team noticed in the last period that the participation rate of women is much lower than that of men, as it did not exceed 30 percent, according to the team’s estimations.

The early-warning service by the SCD released 140,000 different warnings to civilians to evade potential airstrikes. The SCD’s Sentry service documented 851 air raids between last January and September. The SCD team estimated that 2.1 million persons in the region who have internet access would receive the Sentry service’s warnings.

Walkie-talkies or smartphones?

Mustafa al-Ibrahim, who lives in al-Bara city in Idlib’s southern countryside, within the ceasefire zone agreed upon since 5 March between Russia and Turkey, would rather rely on wireless communication devices and human observatories’ warnings.

The ceasefire (de-escalation) zone has witnessed more than 3,174 military violations, documented by the Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG) until 16 October.

These violations included targeting the opposition areas by artillery and missile bombs, drones, and Russian warplanes in several areas of Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo.

Al-Ibrahim said to Enab Baladi in a voice note that “the Civil Defense Sentry service needs Internet access, which is limited in my area.”

Al-Ibrahim considers that the possibility of interacting with the spotters of the observatory increases its importance, “as it can be used as a telephone exchange system, to ask for someone to talk to or for an ambulance or firefighters.”

Civilian observatory points use advanced devices that allow them to intercept long-range signals, as well as broadcast.

Sheikh Ahmed mentioned to Enab Baladi the advantages of civilian observatories, including “exchanging information, securing ambulances, directing civil defense teams to targeted areas, besides circulating news of missing people and robberies.”

The Chinese-made black walkie-talkies witnessed a huge spike in use in houses and vehicles and by people on motorbikes during the military campaigns in northern Syria. The most prevalent of these wireless communication devices are the (777 walkie-talkies) worth 20 USD and receive frequencies up to 20-25 km, depending on the area’s terrain, and how leveled it is.

The residents use special signals to communicate with each other, with limited Internet accessibility and the disconnection of cellular networks in the area.


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