A recent study suggesting a ban on WhatsApp calls has caused worry among Syrians living both inside Syria and abroad as the application has become an essential communication tool, particularly among opposition activists.
“It would cause significant disruption in communication,” says Zobair Shweikh, director of a civil society support centre in Raqqa.
The decision would only apply to people living in government controlled areas but it would mean that they would not be able to communicate via WhatsApp with friends or family living outside of these areas and vice-versa.
In Raqqa, locals rely entirely on WhatsApp as well as other platforms such as Skype, Telegram, Facebook Messenger and Viber, to communicate.
Cell towers have been out of operation since Raqqa’s infrastructure was heavily damaged last year during intense fighting to oust ISIS, suspending landlines and mobile phone networks.
In Idlib, where there is no Syrian network coverage, residents have two choices to place a phone call: WhatsApp or Turkish phone networks, said Abdul Kafy Hamdo, an English teacher living in Idlib.
Even in Damascus, where there are functioning telephone networks under regime control, people still favour using WhatsApp over traditional phone networks. “I find that WhatsApp and Facebook messenger are cheaper and faster,” said a member of the Syrian intelligence agency (Mukhabarat).
However, an employee of a government hospital in Latakia downplayed the importance of WhatsApp. “It’s not fundamental in people’s lives”, she said. “I use it, but if I couldn’t anymore, I wouldn’t care.”
Several opposition newspapers reported this week on the existence of the study, which was made public by Ibaa Oueichek, director of the Syrian Telecommunication Regulatory Authority, in an interview with pro-regime newspaper Al Watan.
Mr Oueichek's original interview was not accessible online yesterday because Al Watan's website was down.
Each minute spent talking through free apps such as WhatsApp and Viber is money lost for licensed telecommunications companies which need to invest in rebuilding damaged infrastructure, Enab Baladi – a news website close to the opposition - reports Mr Oueichek as saying.
Two companies provide mobile phone services in Syria: MTN, a South-African based multinational, and SyriaTel, which is owned by Bashar Al Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, one of Syria's wealthiest businessmen. He also owns Al Watan newspaper.
Enab Baladi reports that Mr Oueichek said that MTN and SyriaTel’s profits are expected to range between four and five billion pounds ($100 million) in 2018. He added that ADSL services helped the companies increase their income sixfold between 2015 and 2018.
The regime keeps a tight grip on its telecommunications sector. A prominent opposition figure, Riad Seif, was imprisoned for five years in 2001 shortly after calling for a parliamentary investigation into “irregularities” in the awarding of mobile phone licenses to Mr Makhlouf.
Regular phone calls with a prepaid card cost 13 Syrian pounds (3 US cents) per minute. That might seem cheap but it is not when compared to monthly salaries which do not exceed 100 dollars per month, writes Enab Baladi.
“There are many other ways to raise profits than by banning VoIP,” argues SMEX, an organization working on technology and human rights in the MENA region based in Beirut, referring to “Voice over internet protocol”, or the transmission of voice content over the Internet.
“This decision is a breach of Syrian citizens’ right to access these tools and express themselves. It would be especially cruel as so many Syrians now reside outside of Syria and VoIP is an easy and affordable way for them to stay in contact with family and friends back home.”
The importance of WhatsApp in Syrian people’s lives must not be underestimated, says Tanya Habjouqa, an award winning photographer and educator based in East Jerusalem who documented the importance of WhatsApp in daily communications for Syrian refugees in Jordan.
“I saw an exhausted mother play an audio message of her husband from Germany singing a lullaby to her screaming infant child, and the baby was soothed,” she says. “It was more than a coping mechanism. People used it to monitor what was happening to the dead and living in Syria, to know what happened to their homes after a bomb, to connect to relatives in Europe and make logistical plans for the future.”
A Syrian lawyer based in Beirut, Ihsan Ismail, told The National she only uses WhatsApp to communicate with her family back in Syria. "It's very practical and cheap", she said. "If WhatsApp is banned, people will have to use other means of communication or a proxy device."
According to SMEX, the government’s long-term objective could be to oblige Syrians to use a “sanctioned VoIP service”. “It would be able to charge for this service, and since the service would have to be government-approved, it would probably also be able to survey these communications.”
One of the main reasons for WhatsApp’s huge popularity among Syrians is that it is believed to be safe from eavesdropping, which made it particularly sought after by opposition activists at the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011.
The app was banned in 2012 by the government though the duration and the effectiveness of the ban remains unclear. A report documented that 98 per cent of Syrians used WhatsApp late 2014. Voice calls were subsequently introduced in February 2015.
“At the beginning of the uprising, the regime banned text messages that contained the word ‘Friday’, as demonstrations occurred on Friday, or ‘demonstration’, or ‘Syrian regime’. So we turned to WhatsApp,” says Abdul Kafy Hamdo, who lives in Idlib but is originally from East Aleppo, which he left in late 2016 when the government wrestled it back from the rebels.
“In Aleppo, there was no phone coverage, so WhatsApp calls saved many souls as it was the only way to contact each other”.
Should Syria decide to go ahead with the ban, it would be far from being the only country in the region to make a similar move.
For example, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has stated that VoIP applications such as WhatApp is the prerogative of licensed telecommunication providers. Local operators are against the formal introduction of VoIP services on their networks, arguing that the resulting erosion of international call revenues hinder their ability to invest in networks.
However, other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Morocco, have recently reversed those bans.