The Internet is a decentralized global network, designed to be resilient and hard to take down. But it’s still possible to black out a certain area, or even an entire country, disconnecting it from the rest of the world.

That’s what happened in Egypt in 2011 and three times in Syria in just the last year.

Were these waves of blackouts the result of technical failures? Or does Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime have stronghold over the country’s Internet access? Most likely yes, according to experts.

"This is only possible if the government has complete control over the telecommunications infrastructure," said John Shier, of the security firm Sophos.

Even if Syria doesn’t have complete control, it has a stranglehold over the network’s single point of failure: the state-controlled Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE), which maintains "the primary flow of Internet traffic in and out of the country," according to David Belson, the editor of network security firm Akamai’s State of the Internet quarterly report.

That means Syria’s internal providers — PCCW, Turk Telekom, Telecom Italia and TATA — have to get access to the Internet through the STE.

"If those providers are all funneling back into what is, in essence, a single government-controlled gateway to get out of the country, then these independent providers have very little control over the international connectivity," Belson told Mashable.

If a country has only one or two providers, it’s "at severe risk of Internet disconnection," according to Renesys, an Internet monitoring firm that did a census of the world’s countries and the number of providers that connect to the international Internet.

Syria is among 61 countries that only have one or two providers.

"Under those circumstances, it’s almost trivial for a government to issue an order that would take down the Internet," wrote Jim Cowie, Renesys’ Chief Technology Officer.


"Make a few phone calls, or turn off power in a couple of central facilities, and you’ve (legally) disconnected the domestic Internet from the global Internet."

"Make a few phone calls, or turn off power in a couple of central facilities, and you’ve (legally) disconnected the domestic Internet from the global Internet."

To realize how easy it is to do, consider that Egypt had four providers when it successfully cut off the Internet during the early days of its revolution in 2011, as Renesys explained in a blog post.

How could the regime use its kill switch?

Belson, of Akamai, said there are two ways. One is to unplug the cables in the datacenter where the STE’s routers connect to outside international Internet providers. The other is to withdraw Syria’s Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routes from the global routing tables. BGP is essentially the protocol that ensures traffic on the Internet flows and directs routers to IP addresses around the world.

This is exactly what happened in May, when Syria was cut off from the Internet for around 19 hours.

If Assad wanted to shut down the Internet, this would be the easiest way.

"[It] can be done from a desk anywhere," Belson explained. "Somebody who has that power within the government fires up a terminal window, types a few commands and shuts off the Syrian BGP routes."

However, unplugging the cables is more involved. "You would have to be actually physically in the datacenter pulling cables out," Belson added. While he warned that it’s impossible to tell if the Syrian government will employ these tactics going forward, Belson noted that "it’s certainly a possibility."

"There’s been something of a pattern," he said, "where the Internet connectivity has suffered outages and downtime often in relation to politically related events within the country."

The Syrian government has been at war since March 2011 with the Free Syrian Army, a rebel regime comprised of anti-Assad fighters. Earlier this week, the State Department accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons against rebels in an Aug. 21 attack near Damascus, killing civilians and inciting international outrage. U.S. government officials said Tuesday that the military could launch a missile strike on Syria as early as Thursday.