As Russia has deployed troops and planes to Syria to reinforce the crumbling rule of President Bashar al-Assad, the run-up to its intervention has been documented in a near real-time basis — an almost unprecedented demonstration of the power of open source intelligence.
Moscow began its aerial campaign against Sunni rebels in Syria on Sept. 30. But more than a month earlier, evidence began surfacing online that pointed to Russia’s military buildup along Syria’s western coast. 
On Aug. 22, a Turkish blog postedphotographs of a Russian cargo ship that had transited the Bosphorus two days earlier. On its deck, covered by tarps, sat the unmistakable forms of Russian BTR-class armored troop carriers. A day later, a video surfacedcontaining what appeared to be audio fragments of Russian military commands. The video also includedfootage of an advanced Russian fighting vehicle, the BTR-82. 
As Russia’s military buildup continued, the open source evidence of its involvement in Syria flooded the Internet. In late August and early September, Russian troops being deployed to Syria posted selfies on social media sites saying they were headed to Russia’s naval port in Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea. On Sept. 2, photos of alleged Russian jets and drones in the skies over Syria appeared on Twitter. During the first half of September, aviation enthusiasts started tracking Russian An-124 cargo flights — similar to the American C-5 Galaxy — to Syria. Moscow said the planes were delivering humanitarian aid, but at least one was photographed at a Russian military base being loaded with an attack helicopter. 
By the middle of September, commercial satellite images showedRussian fighter jets deployed to Syria. In the days that followed, video footage and photographs posted online showed the jets flying in Syrian skies. On Sept. 30, bombs began falling from those jets. 
Arguably, no one has done more to catalog and analyze the volumes of open source information than Ruslan Leviev, a 29-year-old Russian who founded what he calls the Conflict Intelligence Team. The group of six full-time analysts goes through the painstaking work of attempting to verify the digital detritus that the Russian army has left in its wake as it has deployed to Syria. Leviev has been posting compilations of photographs, maps, tweets, videos, and satellite images on his LiveJournal.
“We are not journalists. Are we combatants? It certainly seems so,” Leviev told Foreign Policy, noting that he and his team describe themselves as members of the Russian political opposition. “We perform conflict investigations. We work with soldiers to show them the real situation. We work with soldiers’ relatives to help them. We are fighting for our country and will do it until we win.”
Leviev says he has received death threats, both anonymous and named; he has also been summoned by a St. Petersburg prosecutor for examining the presence of Russian military intelligence units in eastern Ukraine. Leviev says the prosecutor wants an explanation for his work documenting the death of a military intelligence officer in Donbass, a contested region of eastern Ukraine.
Intelligence experts and observers of the Russian military say the only real precedent for the real-time documentation using open source tools of a foreign military adventure was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. That work was in some ways easier. “Internet coverage is good; many locals use social networks and some events, such as the takeover of the parliament building, were even broadcast live,” Leviev said, adding that the ubiquitous presence of dashboard cameras in cars in Russia and Ukraine has provided voluminous video material. “There is nothing like that in Syria.” As the conflict in Ukraine has dragged on, open source efforts to document the war have logged the appearance of tanks, weapons systems, and troops. 
The greater availability of open source intelligence has been enabled in part by enormous growth in the commercial satellite industry, which in 2013 saw revenues of $195 billion, according to one industry report. Firms such as DigitalGlobe and Airbus, giants in the field, provide their clients with satellite imagery that is not far from the vaunted capabilities of the U.S. government. The quality of images produced by American spy satellites is one of the government’s most closely held secrets, so it’s impossible to provide an exact comparison between the capabilities of private sector satellites and the government’s. 
But one indication of the quality of private sector satellites is that the U.S. government is a frequent customer. The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has acontract with DigitalGlobe, and in April 2014, NATO used images captured by the company to publicly document the buildup of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. 
Stephen Wood, whose 14-year CIA career included work on satellite imagery analysis, is now CEO of All Source Analysis. His company analyzes satellite imagery, including pictures of Russian troop deployments in Syria. “I’ve been doing this stuff for 30 years, and, to me, there were a couple times in the last month when we were directly involved in doing this kind of work that I looked back and said, ‘I never thought we would be able to do this using open source information,’” Wood said. 
Nonetheless, defense intelligence experts caution there are many ways in which open source intelligence continues to lag behind classified methods employed by the CIA, NSA, and the rest of the American intelligence community. And even as some members of Congress have complained about the quality of intelligence they’ve received on Russia, the White House has insisted it was not caught flat-footed by Moscow’s intervention. 
“We knew that [Putin] was planning to provide the military assistance that Assad was needing because they were nervous about a potential imminent collapse of the regime,” President Barack Obama told CBS’s 60 Minutes in an Oct. 11 interview. 
As evidence that Russia was moving men and materiel into Syria was amassing online in late August and early September, U.S. officials were taking action to counter Moscow — even if they failed to prevent the intervention. On Sept. 5, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warnedRussian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that an expansion of Moscow’s military presence in Syria may result in a “confrontation” with U.S. forces operating there. In following days, the United States asked countries in the region to close their airspace to Russian cargo flights. 
For major powers such as the United States and Russia, the explosion of open source information has made it far more difficult to keep covert actions secret. When troops bearing no national insignias turned up in Ukraine, open source analyses of their gear and uniform quickly gave them away as Russian troopers. Steve Slick, the director of the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin and a 28-year CIA veteran, pointed out, “The collection and dissemination of tail numbers of aircraft allegedly involved in U.S. government terrorist renditions generated unforeseen scrutiny and complicated our government’s efforts to detect and disrupt terror plotting.”