Damascus: Virtual platforms like Netflix and Zoom have emerged as a lifeline to a world where the epidemic is spreading at home, but in sanctioned Syria where both sites are blocked, Muhammad Habash is increasingly feeling disconnected.
“We live in a bubble isolated from the outside world,” says the 35-year-old tech expert from an electronics repair workshop in Damascus.
“This isolation means that an entire generation of Syrian youth is technologically disenfranchised compared to their global peers.”
Even before the outbreak of the war in 2011, tech giants such as Amazon, Apple, and Google could not operate freely in Syria due to US sanctions that prohibit the export, sale or supply of goods, software, technology, and services without permission from the US government.
Tight restrictions, while rare, are not unique to the war-torn country. It also applies to other countries that the United States imposes sanctions, such as North Korea, while Iran benefits from some exemptions.
Although they were intended to weaken the Syrian government, the controls also restricted access to the internet world that has helped many deal with the lockdown of the Coronavirus.
“Syrians cannot access any Western online platform – not for education, online shopping, business or entertainment,” Habash says.
“This became clearer to us last year with the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.”
Syria is among only four countries that cannot access Netflix, the world’s premier movie streaming platform.
Syria is also only one of five countries banned from Zoom – the new leader in video conferencing apps.
To bypass some restrictions, Syrians like Habash are increasingly turning to VPN proxy servers, although they are not effective on all platforms, including Netflix.
Even when VPNs can facilitate access, some apps require an activation code that is sent via text message.
These codes cannot be sent to numbers registered in Syria, which effectively prohibits Syrian users, unless they rely on the number of friends abroad.
To compensate for Netflix, Syrians in Damascus are turning to pirated films and TV series sold on disks and hard drives.
As an alternative to Zoom, many choose WhatsApp or Skype, both of which offer a video call option.
But not all ISPs can be replaced that easily.
Amazon online marketplace, for example, is hard to match.
“It’s an impossible mission,” Habash says, referring to Amazon’s requests to Syria.
The technician recently purchased a projector from the site.
He had to ask a friend in Lebanon to issue the order, because he couldn’t get there by himself.
It took three months before the parcel reached Syria, as it had to be shipped for the first time to Lebanon before he could arrange delivery.
“The VPN in this case is useless,” Habash says.
Since the coronavirus restrictions forced people around the world to stay home, all seminars, workshops and meetings have moved online.
But journalist Zeina Shahla had to turn down dozens of conferences over the past year because they were all held on Zoom.
She says the organizers were reluctant to choose an alternative platform to meet her needs as it would be inappropriate for other participants.
“Zoom is the most popular and easiest to use” for everyone except for Syrians, she says.
This made her feel even more isolated.
“I feel that the technological clock in Syria stopped years ago,” she told France Press from a Damascus café.
If anything, “It is now moving backwards day in and day out because of all the technical hurdles.”
However, one silver aspect, according to Shahla, is that Syrians can watch Youtube without interruption because Google ads are banned.
Despite the sanctions, there is a market for Apple and Android products in Syria, largely due to unofficial suppliers who import them from abroad.
The price of iPhone 12 in Damascus is at least six million Syrian pounds (more than 1,400 dollars at the black market price, and more than 4,700 dollars at the official price).
This is equivalent to about one hundred times the average civil service salary of 60,000 pounds.
But the exorbitant price is not the only reason why Omar chose not to purchase the latest model.
With Android and Apple services banned due to sanctions, the 26-year-old student at Damascus University is not seeing the target.
“Any application I want to download requires electronic payment, and most of the new programs do not work even here,” he told AFP in a popular mobile phone store.
“This means that smartphones lose most of their unique features, even if they are brand new, just because we are in Syria.”