Air raid warning tech gives Syrians life-saving minutes

The Sentry program, launched two years ago by two Americans and a Syrian coder, uses human observers and a network of sensors to compute a predicted impact location when Syrian or allied Russian warplanes take off. (AFP/Omar Hajj Kadour)
Updated 30 August 2018
0

Air raid warning tech gives Syrians life-saving minutes

  • The Sentry program, launched two years ago by two Americans and a Syrian coder, uses human observers and a network of sensors
  • The resulting estimate can then trigger air raid sirens near the target zone and send warnings to mobile phone applications

MAARET AL-SHUREEN, Syria: Khaled Al-Idlibi was still speeding away with his brother perched on the back of his motorbike when he heard the air strike that levelled his neighbors’ house in northwest Syria.
Those crucial extra minutes were thanks to a warning system that could help save civilian lives in an expected regime offensive on Idlib province, home to the last significant rebel-held area.
The Sentry program, launched two years ago by two Americans and a Syrian coder, uses human observers and a network of sensors to compute a predicted impact location when Syrian or allied Russian warplanes take off.
The resulting estimate can then trigger air raid sirens near the target zone and send warnings to mobile phone applications, giving residents more time to take cover.
Idlibi, a 23-year-old media activist, lives in Maaret Al-Shureen, a rebel-controlled town in Idlib.
On June 10 last year, he was picking up belongings he had left behind while fleeing from an earlier air strike when his smartphone suddenly lit up.
“I received an alert on Telegram that a new warplane had taken off toward the same area,” he said, recounting that he and his brother jumped on their motorbike and rode to about a kilometer from the predicted impact spot.
Idlibi said “only three children were wounded that day” and estimated that up to 15 lives may have been saved by the Sentry alert.
First launched in August 2016, the Sentry technology has become a sort of weather forecast service for many Syrians.
The system’s creators say that it has proved its worth, including during the intense air campaign against the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta, earlier this year.
“We saw a huge spike in use as the campaign ramped up,” John Jaeger, a co-founder of the Hala Systems firm that developed the technology used in Sentry, told AFP.
Jaeger, a former US diplomat and technologist who was looking for new ways to prevent civilian deaths in Syria, created the system with US entrepreneur Dave Levin and a Syrian coder whose identity is kept secret.
The system — which Jaeger says is currently funded by Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark — requires a human network on the ground to monitor areas and set up sensors.
It is therefore limited in which zones it can cover. It does not, for example, provide updates on US-led coalition warplanes targeting the Daesh group in air strikes that have also routinely killed civilians.
Hala Systems estimates that its warning system is available to around two million people in Syria, most of them in Idlib.
Jaeger said that, while reliable statistics were hard to come by, data analysis showed that 27 percent fewer people died in air strikes on areas where Sentry was used.
Residents who get an alert via social media, local radio stations or the air raid sirens that Hala triggers remotely have an average of eight minutes to seek shelter, Jaeger said.
The White Helmets, a network of rescuers in rebel-held areas, are actively involved in the development of Sentry, a technology that gives their staff extra time to mobilize.
“The civil defense’s technicians are trying to develop this service so that it reaches civilians even without Internet,” the warning system’s coordinator in northern Syria, Ibrahim Abu Laith, told AFP in Idlib.
He said 191 awareness sessions were held in recent weeks across parts of northern Syria vulnerable to government air strikes, so civilians know how to access Sentry.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, more than 350,000 people have been killed since the start of the Syrian conflict.
That figure includes around 33,000 civilians killed by regime and Russian air strikes and helicopter attacks.
Jaeger said he had not detected any attempt to disable the Sentry system by Syria’s regime.
“They don’t say they support it but I think they should. It’s nobody’s goal to kill as many civilians as possible,” he said.
“If Russia or a government aircraft specifically wants to target you, there is little this system can do for you... We just want to prevent as many preventable deaths as possible.”


Renewed US-led airstrikes pound Daesh holdouts

Updated 23 March 2019
0

Renewed US-led airstrikes pound Daesh holdouts

  • According to SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel, hundreds of Daesh fighters, including some women, still remain on the outskirts of the encampment
SOUSA, SYRIA: US-led warplanes bombed the north bank of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria on Friday to flush out holdout militants from the last sliver of their crumbling “caliphate.”
Friday’s bombardment ended two days of relative calm on the front line in the remote village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had paused its advance while it combed a makeshift militant encampment, which it overran on Tuesday.
An SDF official said warplanes of the US-led coalition resumed strikes on suspected militant positions before dawn on Friday.
Top SDF commander Jia Furat said his forces were engaging with the Daesh fighters on several fronts while the coalition warplanes provided air support.
The coalition said the “operation to complete the liberation of Baghouz is ongoing.”
“It remains a hard fight, and Daesh is showing that they intend to keep fighting for as long as possible,” it said. The SDF launched what it called its “final assault” against the rebels’ last redoubt in the village of Baghouz on Feb. 9.
Finally on Tuesday, they cornered diehard fighters into a few acres of farmland along the Euphrates River, after forcing them out of their rag-tag encampment of tents and battered vehicles.
The six-month-old operation to wipe out the last vestige of Daesh’s once-sprawling proto-state is close to reaching its inevitable outcome, but the SDF has said a declaration of victory will be made only after they have completed flushing out the last tunnels and hideouts.
According to SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel, hundreds of Daesh fighters, including some women, still remain on the outskirts of the encampment. They are hiding along the bank of the Euphrates River as well as at the base of a hill overlooking Baghouz, he told AFP.
“In around one or two days, we will conclude military operations if there are no surprise developments,” he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Daesh holdouts were hiding in underground tunnels and caves in Baghouz.
SDF official Jiaker Amed said several militants want to surrender but are being prevented from doing so by other fighters.
“We are trying our best to wrap up the operation without fighting, but some of them are refusing to surrender,” he said.
More than 66,000 people, mostly civilians, have quit the last Daesh redoubt since Jan. 9, according to the SDF.
They comprise 5,000 militants and 24,000 of their relatives as well as 37,000 other civilians.
The thousands who have streamed out have been housed in cramped camps and prisons run by Kurdish forces further north.
On Wednesday night, around 2,000 women and children from Baghouz arrived at the largest camp, Al-Hol, which is struggling to cope with the influx of tens of thousands of people, many in poor health.
Since December, at least 138 people, mostly children, have died en route to Al-Hol or shortly after arrival, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Daesh declared a “caliphate” in June 2014 after seizing a vast swathe of territory larger than Britain straddling Iraq and Syria.
The loss of the Baghouz enclave would signal the demise of the “caliphate” in Syria, after its defeat in Iraq in 2017.
But Daesh has already begun its transformation into a guerilla organization, and still carries out deadly hit-and-run attacks from desert or mountain hideouts.
In a video released on Daesh’s social media channels on Thursday, militants vowed to continue to carry out attacks.
“To those who think our caliphate has ended, we say not only has it not ended, but it is here to stay,” said one fighter.
He urged Daesh supporters to conduct attacks in the West against the enemies of the “caliphate.”
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted following the repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.