The online whistleblowing organization Wikileaks has acquired more than 2 million emails to and from Syrian officials and associated companies, according to its website. Thursday marks the beginning of a long, piecemeal release of the classified documents.
This extraordinary data set derives from 680 Syria-related entities or domain names, including those of the Ministries of Presidential Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Information, Transport and Culture, says the Wikileaks website.
The leak is expected to provide insights into the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who for 16 months has engaged in a brutal crackdown on protesters and rebel forces across the country. At least 16,000 Syrians have died in the conflict so far.
Atrocities in the Middle Eastern country show no sign of abating. On Thursday, Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N.-sponsored team of monitors in Syria, told reporters that the violence there has reached a level unprecedented since the conflict began in March 2011.
The Assad regime faces widespread condemnation on a global scale, but military intervention has so far been avoided by international powers. Wikileaks aims to battle Assad's intransigency in a new way, shedding light on the inner workings of the Syrian regime and exposing any collaborators.
At a press conference in London on Thursday, Wikileaks staffer Sarah Harrison addressed concerns about the legitimacy of the emails. She said, considering the sheer volume of the material, it was impossible to verify each missive right away. But work is ongoing, and Wikileaks is statistically confident about the general authenticity of its collection.
Harrison also pointed out that the Syrian government isn't the only organization whose underhandedness will be exposed by the documents -- Western companies are also involved in many of the exchanges, which date from August 2006 to March 2012.
To that point, Harrison delivered a comment from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who could not be present at the conference.
The material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria's opponents, he said. It helps us not merely to criticize one group or another, but to understand their interests, actions and thoughts. It is only through understanding this conflict that we can hope to resolve it.
Harrison did not address concerns about some of Wikileaks' partners on the Syria Files project. Some suspect that the documents may be turn out to biased against Western organizations, and could favor the Assad regime itself.
For instance, it has emerged that the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar will be one of Wikileaks' partners in publishing the material. The paper has been criticized in the West for its ties to Hezbollah, a close Assad ally; more recently, it has been blasted by other media outlets for its soft stance on the Assad regime.
Furthermore, Assange himself seems to have a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has stood in the way of a UN Security Council resolution to intervene in Syria.
Assange is currently at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He is seeking political asylum there in order to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he has been charged with sexual assault. Assange denies breaking any laws.
In response to those allegations, several payment processing companies decided to stop serving Wikileaks, and the resulting plunge in donations has slowed down the organization's work.
Difficulties notwithstanding, staffers plan on releasing all of the Syria files over a period of two months. Faced with the Syria Files data set of 2,434,899 messages in a variety of languages and alphabets -- about 400,000 are in Arabic, and 68,000 are in Russian, for instance -- the organization has built a sophisticated data-mining system to sift through the information.
The first batch of emails, made public on Thursday, contains exchanges between members of several technology companies: the Greek and Syrian branches of Intracom Holdings, the Italy-based company Finmeccanica and the Syria-based Alfadel Group.
The emails discuss sales of Finmeccanica's wireless communications systems of the type typically used by security personnel. If the email dates are accurate, Wikileaks has shown that the company continued doing business with Syria at least until February of this year.
According to Wikileaks, this is only the very beginning; future leaks will show high-level exchanges between officials in the Assad regime.
The Syria files shine a light on the inner workings on the Syrian government and economy, said Harrison on Thursday. But they also reveal how the West, and Western companies, say one thing and do another.