Digital castaways

The Syrian struggle to connect

Synaps 

In Syria, going online is as hard as it gets. Things as trivial as streaming a YouTube video or completing an audio call can be unusually difficult and costly. A broken economy, decaying telecommunication infrastructure, regime surveillance, and Western sanctions combine to turn routine digital tasks into an ever-evolving obstacle course. And yet, smartphones and 3G connections are no luxury: Amid collapsing public services, a fraying social fabric, and a predatory state, they can be the difference between life and death.

For Syrians, navigating the internet means so much more than just browsing. They must hack their way through a web of practical problems and partial solutions, which often come with trade-offs. At each step of this digital journey, you must improvise and take risks. You might save for months to buy the used, low-end device you absolutely need… only to see it break down within weeks. Blocked by sanctions from downloading the software that is essential for your work, you may buy an illegal version on Syria’s flourishing market for cracked programs… at the risk of installing spyware that will monitor your every move. The end result looks pretty much like a video game, in which winning on one level only leads to a more challenging one.





GO ONLINE

The first obstacle to getting connected is the sheer cost of buying a device on Syria’s battered domestic market. In Damascus, a cheap new laptop would be anywhere from 200 to 500 US dollars—amounting to millions of Syrian pounds. By comparison, the monthly wage of a typical civil servant is around 75,000 pounds. A government employee would have to save for years, theoretically, just to buy a computer.

Many Syrians end up relying exclusively on smartphones, even when their careers depend on better hardware. “I use my mobile phone to edit documents,” confessed a professional proofreader in Damascus. “It’s much harder, especially in Arabic, but I can’t afford a laptop.” Even modest, first-hand mobile devices cost several hundred thousand pounds—roughly a hundred dollars and up. The latest iPhone will sell for closer to 10 million: an almost fanciful sum by Syrian standards, roughly equaling a decade’s worth of public sector wages.

These unmanageable prices reflect the spectacular devaluation of Syria’s currency  in recent years, which has ratcheted up the prices of foreign goods. US and EU sanctions create additional barriers to importing devices—particularly high-quality Western brands. As a result, Syrian importers frequently resort to smuggling, passing the extra expenses onto consumers. Worse still, the import market is largely controlled by regime-connected traders who price-gouge at will. Finally, the Syrian authorities themselves have further driven up prices, imposing steep fees on imported electronics: A 350,000 pound smartphone might incur a 70,000 pound tax, tacking on yet another month’s worth of a civil servant’s salary.

Procuring a device is only the first stage of this gauntlet. The next hurdle is getting a functioning internet connection. Even privileged Syrians usually endure at least three hours of blackouts for every three hours of power. Many face far worse odds, with the lights coming on for just a couple of hours per day—leaving them hard-pressed to charge devices or power Wi-Fi routers. “I feel like I’m just waiting during the outages,” said a moviemaker in Damascus, echoing a common complaint. “I can only get my work done when the electricity comes back.” To get around these shortages, some Syrians turn car batteries into makeshift power banks—a practice that only works up to a point, as it can also irreparably damage computers and smartphones.

Even when current is available, Syria’s weak telecommunications infrastructure hampers access to the internet. Wi-Fi connections generally depend on functioning landlines, which are nonexistent in swathes of the country ruined by war. A Damascene driver who was displaced from the suburb of Ain Tarma explained that he is hesitant to return home, because the telecoms system has not been repaired: “It would be very difficult to go home before they have re-connected the landlines. We can’t live without internet anymore—it has become a basic need.”

Landlines that remain operable are overused and poorly maintained, resulting in sluggish transmission. The Syrian Ministry of Communications and Technology adds to the problem by hooking Syria up to the World Wide Web at rock-bottom prices: “We buy cheap connections from our internet providers in Turkey and Cyprus,” said an expert on Syria’s telecommunications infrastructure. “We don’t care about the quality of service; people are paying anyway, as they don’t have other options.” According to local engineers, upload speeds are also noticeably slower than those in neighboring countries. This discrepancy, they suggest, dates back to a 2011 decision by the authorities to hinder local online activism by throttling internet transmissions originating in Syria.

Wireless 3G plans are hardly an alternative to landlines, given their high costs and spotty coverage. “The 3G signal doesn’t reach into my flat, so I have to sit in the stairwell to call my brothers abroad via WhatsApp,” said a woman in Husseiniyeh, a suburb on Damascus’ southern edge. “I look for games for my children and for English courses to help them in school, but I don’t have enough data to download them.” Another woman in the Damascus suburbs similarly lamented that she can’t afford to attend virtual trainings offered by NGOs: “It’s just too expensive to stream video sessions on 3G.”

Faced with myriad obstacles, Syrians have developed a broad repertoire of workarounds. The most rudimentary strategies revolve around cutting costs: People ration their data and electricity, and buy cheap or second-hand devices, going to great lengths to extend their lifespans—a trend that has fed a growing market for IT repairs. “Customers keep using their mobiles until they die in their hands,” said the owner of a mobile shop in Damascus. Another tactic is to spread the costs of Wi-Fi and routers across several households: “Almost all my neighbors have asked me to share my network password and split the bill,” said a journalist in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana. “I can’t share with everyone because it would slow the connection too much, but I did so with a couple of neighbors whose kids needed it for school.”

Such acts of solidarity coexist with zero-sum approaches, revealing how economic degradation has frayed Syria’s social fabric. People routinely steal Wi-Fi from one another: “I change my password periodically, because there are always people trying to guess it,” the same journalist admitted. “That’s fair enough: Even I tried to guess my neighbor’s password to use their connection when I first moved in.” More extreme behaviors verge on desperation. A trader in Damascus explained that some Syrians cut corners on other necessary purchases—say, groceries and clothes—in order to save up enough to buy a device. Some, he said, go further still: “I have a friend who runs a mobile shop, and who has had women offering to sleep with him in exchange for discounts.”





have a life

Such determination to get online captures just how much Syrians have invested in the digital sphere. They have come to depend on the internet, in no small part, to satisfy the fundamental human need for interpersonal connection. In a fragmented society, shot through with alienation and isolation, the digital sphere presents a rare and precious opportunity to preserve existing bonds and form new ones.

To start with, Syrians must often overcome physical separation from their loved ones. Millions have fled abroad, and millions more remain displaced internally. The country itself has splintered into territories that can be costly and dangerous to move between, leaving friends and families cut off from each other. Checkpoints and roving militias aside, deepening fuel shortages have forced Syrians to restrict their travel. Many are unable to visit their hometowns, including during festive seasons when increased demand further inflates prices. Mobility may even stop at your front door: Men who are wanted for military service and cannot afford to flee the country may sequester themselves at home to avoid conscription, sometimes for years.

For those boxed in by all these layers of separation, digital tools are a lifeline. WhatsApp calls—either voice or video, connection permitting—have become an integral part of Syrian family culture, partially filling the void left by physical visits. “We all have our designated slot for video calls every day,” said a displaced woman from Homs, now living in Damascus. “My mother talks to my brothers in Europe, then my mother-in-law talks to her daughter in Turkey, and finally I talk to my daughter in Lebanon.”

If digital tools are essential for preserving old connections, they are no less useful in creating new ones. Some young Syrians turn to the web for dating, including to court potential partners abroad. Strong networks of solidarity have also multiplied on social media. These range from ordinary Facebook pages where Syrians help one another track down scarce household items to lifesaving Telegram groups through which volunteers organize to distribute oxygen cylinders to covid patients. Similarly, in a media environment that is tightly controlled and polluted by disinformation, digital platforms allow Syrians to find reliable information from trusted sources: Small towns and villages maintain Facebook pages to stay abreast of local news, while taxi drivers rely on WhatsApp groups to pool updates about roadblocks or flareups that might disrupt their routes.

Other forms of digital solidarity are more directly political. While regime reprisals have silenced most overt opposition inside Syria, digital activism endures in various shapes. Syria’s feminist movement, for example, has a vigorous digital presence: Activists connect with one another—and with feminists outside Syria—to hone their thinking, share information, and engage in advocacy efforts and civic initiatives. In one hopeful example, a feminist group, based primarily on Facebook, is giving legal and psychological support to women who have suffered from gender-based violence and the enduring stigma that surrounds it. In this way, digital spaces foster connectivity and mitigate loneliness not just among like-minded activists, but also among the most vulnerable and marginalized.

Of course, digital tools can just as easily amplify social fissures. Much as anywhere else, Syria’s social media is rife with self-promotion, hate-mongering, and competing echo-chambers in which Syrians soak up the narratives that suit them, while demonizing others. More distinctive is the ubiquity of gruesome, even traumatic images: For years, Facebook groups have been flooded with pictures and videos of bombed-out buildings, bloodied corpses, and dead babies. Many Syrians came to consume and share such content compulsively, contributing to a poisonous online space. Although the military conflict now stagnates, loyalists and oppositionists alike relentlessly turn to the digital world to vent their grievances and rehash their orthodoxies.

Unsurprisingly, others retreat into the digital world to evade this toxic content. Gaming has become an increasingly popular pastime: Many young Syrians get up in the early hours of the morning, when there is less strain on the internet connection, to play Assassin’s Creed, Dota 2, or PUBG. Others spend hours on end, and considerable money, watching online series—despite the inaccessibility of mainstream platforms like Netflix. “I dream of binge watching something like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or Rick and Morty,” said a young woman in Rural Damascus. “I just want to feel normal, like people anywhere else in the world.”





make a living

Digital tools also provide an indispensable yet tortuous resource for Syrians seeking a measure of economic stability. In and of itself, Syria currently offers few prospects for either obtaining a decent education or building a viable career. Its once robust system of public schools and universities is in disarray, with rundown classrooms beset by overcrowding and a brain drain among teachers. Young people often ask themselves why they should even bother pursuing a degree: Civil servant positions that once guaranteed a lifelong salary no longer cover the bare minimum, and desirable private sector jobs are scarce.

In such a stifling environment, you are left to probe digital pathways to a more promising future. Students tap e-learning platforms like Coursera and Duolingo to supplement dismal instruction and develop the skill sets—notably, foreign languages—that make them stronger candidates for opportunities overseas. They form Telegram groups to exchange notes and share hacked instructional materials. This reliance on digital instruction extends beyond students, with professionals frequently seeking out technical training online. “Mechanics kept telling me that my car is unfixable because it needs a part that can’t be procured in Syria,” said a taxi driver. “I searched the internet and, with my son’s help, was able to build the part myself.”

Syrian entrepreneurs, too, have been experimenting with the web to circumvent the high costs of renting a physical shop or office, which makes even less sense when selling to consumers with negligible purchasing power. An online retailer, who makes garments using traditional methods and fabric, took pride in how she successfully switched to the digital sphere:

We opened a shop, but quickly had to close. The only way we could succeed was to maintain a shop in one of Damascus’ central souks, but we didn’t have the money to rent there. In any event, our products have a larger market online, particularly among Syrians abroad who feel homesick and want to buy traditional goods.

Syrian jobseekers likewise leverage digital tools to make a living, not least as a remote workforce for foreign companies that pay in hard currency. Syrians have thus capitalized, for example, on their country’s strong reputation for Arabic-language education to find remote work in tutoring, translation, editing, and copywriting. “I work with a foreign website that specializes in trade and industry,” explained a young, aspiring writer. “I send them a minimum of two articles per day, and get paid five dollars for each article.”

This model nonetheless has serious downsides. Unscrupulous foreign employers are homing in on Syrian laborers precisely because they will accept rock bottom wages, far beneath their actual market value. “Because they can’t find any other work, some computer engineers take on major projects for just a few hundred dollars,” lamented a remote programmer. “They know the middleman in the Gulf takes double what they earn, but they are forced to accept that.”

Remote work is also plagued by connection problems, which become a persistent headache both for Syrian workers and their employers abroad. A Saudi developer summed up his experience contracting programmers inside Syria: “The quality of work was excellent, but we faced constant disruptions due to electricity and the internet.” These may undermine trust, as employers surmise that poor connection may just hide poor performance. “The consultant I’m working with inside Syria sometimes takes more than a day to respond to my messages,” said an employer based in Lebanon. “He says it’s due to outages, but even in Syria, I’m sure you can connect at least once a day.”

An even thornier problem is how Western sanctions have cut Syria off from much of the world’s global infrastructure. For fear of breaking some ill-defined rule, many tech providers voluntarily steer clear of Syria’s small and high-risk market: PayPal, Adobe, Slack, and TikTok are all blocked inside the country. Even apps that continue to function—notably, Gmail—may abruptly lock you out for the “suspicious” act of logging on while using a “virtual private network” (VPN) to mask your device’s IP address.

This obstacle course can be life-altering, slamming shut the very doors that technology promises to open. A young computer engineer experienced these effects firsthand: “I won a grant to enroll in an online master’s degree at an English university, but then I couldn’t gain permission to access the library from Syria. It made the grant meaningless, so I had to drop out.”

Syria’s excommunication from global financial markets also hits ordinary Syrians hard. The implications may be banal and manageable: You could fail, say, to update your phone’s operating system, for lack of an accepted payment method. But they threaten livelihoods too. Unable to receive international wire transfers, remote workers and business owners resort to measures that are costly and dangerous, from carrying bags of cash across the border to moving it through shady agents on the financial black market. Some Syrians even lose access to their own money abroad: “I put all my savings in an Australian bank account,” explained a flight attendant in Damascus. “But when I tried to conduct a transaction from Syria, they blocked my access. I asked lawyers what to do. They said I can’t do anything.”

This battery of impediments means Syrian internet users are constantly coming up with solutions as diverse and dynamic as the obstacles they face. Perhaps the most common trick entails using VPNs to access restricted platforms. VPNs were once the province of geeks and activists, but have lately proliferated even among low-tech users. Syrian hackers share tutorials on social media explaining how to unblock sites or services. Cracked software has grown so widespread that it is now sold in mobile shops, where vendors install programs onto customers’ devices. Users without access to credit cards seek help from friends or colleagues abroad, who subscribe to digital services on their behalf. Indeed, the demand is such that some Syrian expatriates have made a business of it, charging steep fees to sign clients up to paid online services.

These fixes are central to Syrians’ fast-evolving digital culture, and their economic prospects more broadly. A Syrian engineer now based in Germany explained:

The only place I miss in Syria is Bahsa [the IT market in Damascus], where you can pay half a dollar for a CD with 2,000 dollars’ worth of software on it. This allowed Syrian programmers to access all kinds of programs, and in turn gain experience and hone their skills. When we come to Europe, we often find that we are literate in more programs than our European peers.

Alongside improvised solutions, Syria has also witnessed rare but hopeful moments of collective redress. Activist groups have notably lobbied tech companies to restore access to popular online educational platforms. After a widely shared petition entreated Duolingo to make its English proficiency tests available in the country, the app obtained in December 2020 an exemption from the US treasury to do just that. But such small victories are overshadowed by the struggle to stay one step ahead of the next looming challenge.





digital arms race

If international red tape threatens people’s livelihoods, Syria’s own surveillance state endangers their lives. For decades, Damascus has maintained an ambivalent stance toward digital progress: On the one hand, Syria’s Baathist regime has strived from its inception to present a modernizing face. Tellingly, Bashar al-Assad’s first public post was head of the Syrian Computer Society. This affiliation helped him burnish his image as a technocratic, almost geeky, reformist. Upon assuming the presidency in 2000, Bashar’s campaign of economic modernization included introducing computers into schools, licensing internet cafes, and lowering the cost of internet connections.

This drive to connect Syrians to the internet sat awkwardly with a still greater imperative: to monitor and police the country’s public sphere. The digital opening of the 2000s thus faced resistance from the security apparatus; internet penetration remained lower than in authoritarian states elsewhere in the region; and popular websites such as Facebook and Hotmail were banned. As authorities tracked, harassed, and occasionally imprisoned activists, Syria appeared conspicuously on the lists of worst countries for internet freedoms compiled by such organizations as Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Yet the surveillance and repression of the 2000s paled in comparison to what came in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising. As Syrians took en masse to Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp to circulate news and images of protests, the regime used those same tools to identify and detain detractors. Many were tortured into giving up passwords to key accounts. Emails, social media feeds, and messaging apps served not just as evidence of seditious activity, but as clues to hunt down fellow dissidents.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Electronic Army—a loyalist hacktivist group—set about defacing the websites of Western media outlets with propaganda. In one high-profile example, the group replaced the Washington Post’s homepage with a string of messages including “US govt is training the terrorists to kill more Syrians,” and “The media is always lying.” Now that the conflict has slowed and grinding economic deterioration has taken root, the regime detains even sympathetic journalists, simply for reporting the collapse of public services.

Alongside surveillance, the authorities have invested in digitizing banal bureaucratic processes, from doling out subsidized goods to registering real estate transactions. A notable example is the advent of the so-called Smart Card, through which Syrians can access rationed fuel, bread, and sugar. While the authorities frame such “e-governance” initiatives as a way of rationalizing the allocation of dwindling resources, many Syrians charge that they are gathering information on citizens to more effectively shake them down for taxes. “The state only digitizes those services that help them keep track of where everyone lives and how much money they make,” claimed a lawyer and activist, summing up a common view. “The whole point is to take as much as possible from people while giving little back.”

Faced with such encroachment, Syrians recognize that digital tools are double-edged: Their emancipatory potential also poses risks that must be carefully managed. Certain tenets of cybersecurity have therefore spread widely even among less informed users, spurred on by activists and NGOs who invest in digital awareness raising. Some laypeople maintain a second, secret Facebook account to interact on the platform while preserving their anonymity. Syrians have formed private groups on social media platforms dedicated to sharing best practices on how to protect themselves from snooping. A young activist in Damascus explained: “I learned early on how to choose strong passwords and manage a VPN. My friends and I are constantly trading tips.”

Political activists are the most scrupulous in shoring up their systems. Some approaches hinge on technical competence, like knowing how to use the right software to ensure that deleted files leave no traces on devices. Others are low-tech, but arguably more essential: A common practice among activists is to entrust their most sensitive passwords to close friends or family, for them to clean up their accounts in the event of detention. Some have even built up relationships with employees at Western tech companies like Google or Facebook, to ensure the speedy closure of a detainee’s account.

This evolution, however, is improvised and tentative. While many Syrians use VPNs, few understand the nuances at play: What exactly does a VPN protect you against, and how does it leave you exposed? Which are more secure, and what are the risks of using free ones? Cybersecurity buffs report that Russia or the Syrian regime are distributing free VPNs to spy on people, yet end-users lack the means to confirm or debunk such fears. The same problem affects hacked software, on which virtually everyone depends. A communications engineer in Damascus described the confusion and anxiety that clouds even the most diligent efforts to stay safe:

I don’t trust any application acquired inside Syria, because it might contain spyware. For instance, I can legally download [the antivirus] Kaspersky, but that download would go through Syrian servers, and I worry that the regime can add something to it. This is just me speculating, but I won’t do anything that may open a backdoor into my digital life.

Syrian digital experts routinely disagree on the best tactics, or even on what behaviors are especially high-risk. Some swear by certain modes of communication—notably WhatsApp—that others believe are thoroughly compromised. Ominously, tech-savvy young Syrians tend to settle into a false sense of security, heartened by the fact that their systems have kept them out of trouble… so far. Yet the regime will keep investing in its own surveillance capacity—forcing Syrians to keep adapting in turn. This asymmetric, shadowy struggle pits regime and society in a never-ending spiral of incursions and evasion.

 # # #


The great injustice of this fight for digital access is that Syrians cannot possibly win. No matter how much they strive, innovate, and hack away at the obstacles before them, their fate depends on factors beyond their control: imported technologies, remote digital services, and alien decisions about who can ultimately do what on the web. Put otherwise, the internet undeniably links Syrians to the outside world, only to underscore their extreme isolation and dependence within it.

In this respect, Syria’s story is also that of the internet globally. However great the web’s democratizing, liberating potential, it remains haunted by the streak of elitist and exclusionary politics that was always part of its nature. The digital lives of ordinary Syrians are corralled by a regime that itself is boxed in by greater powers. The internet, all told, serves some users more than others, in a “digital divide” whose contours differ from one context to another. Yet the drive to be part of the online world is universal: Easy access to the internet now defines a child’s future in society, be it in Damascus, Delhi, or Detroit.

Societies the world over are slowly, painfully starting to grapple with the dark side of the web’s transformative potential: While rampant disinformation corrodes the fabric of liberal democracies, China pioneers dystopian models of surveillance and social control. As we all come to grips with the internet, we have much to learn from one another. Few places are richer in lessons than Syria, which for all its troubles is also a frantic and inspiring laboratory of change. To discern the internet’s future, the best vantage point may well be on its fringes.

13 December 2021

This essay was authored by a Syrian fellow with Synaps.

Grateful credits: The spread is a photo by Vlado Paunovic published on Unsplash; the title font, Azonix, is a creation of mixofx; other illustrations are by Synaps.

This publication was produced with kind support from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Its content does not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this publication lies entirely with the authors.



The quest for better information

Inside Lebanon's media labs


Obama's Iraq policy

That curious feeling of deja-vu


Daesh is not the point

Counter-intuiting the Middle East


Sign up for the occasional Slow Read. We publish only what makes us proud

* required