On Un-Sanctioning Syria

A notable news item this morning is that of the United States’ lifting two bits of its sanctions on Syria, one of which happens to be its ban on the import/export of IT, including hardware and software (the other is on the exportation of goods to the Syrian aviation industry). Syrian envoy to the U.S. Imad Moustapha (a blogger in his own right) announced the news yesterday, stating that more sanctions will be lifted soon.

I explained the sanctions in this Huffington Post piece in April:

The Bush administration implemented sanctions against Syria in 2004, accusing the regime of meddling in Lebanese affairs, fostering the Iraqi insurgency, and supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. The sanctions against Syria in particular apply to exports and reexports, including software. Specifically, U.S. companies are prohibited from providing “operation” technology and software, “sales” technology, and software updates.

Since the sanctions were enacted, a number of Web-based companies have had to carefully examine their terms of service and restrict users from accessing certain areas of sites. Google, for example, allows Syrian users to access Gmail and iGoogle, but not Google Gears or Gmail video chat. Facebook, though filtered by Syrian ISPs, offers Syria as a location option, and allows users to access its services. Only companies such as, which sells books and other products by mail, and, which offers domain names, have been forced to prohibit Syrian use altogether. The blog ArabCrunch offers more details on other social networking sites that implement sanctions.

The lifting of the IT ban seems, to me, to be low-hanging fruit, the simplest way to please (or appease) the public while getting rid of a relatively useless rule that wasn’t doing much good anyway, given the ease and proliferation of people downloading software while out of the country, or sharing it with one another on USB keys and CDs. Moreover, it affects ordinary Syrians more than anyone – those who want to use Google Earth or buy an iPhone – isolating the online population even further (Syria, of course, blocks a number of sites of its own accord).

It will be interesting to see if the lifting of the IT sanctions has any effect on the Syrian government’s Internet filtering, which seems to be easing in minor ways (friends report some ISPs are filtering less than others, and that the mobile web is still entirely unfiltered).

On a side note, I’m saddened, though not surprised, by the comments on the Jerusalem Post article on the subject (which happens to be only one of six indexed by Google News, and certainly the most prominent publication in the list). The comments, mostly from self-identified Jews, both American and Israeli, are full of bigoted sentiments toward Obama, false claims that he’s either not American or is Muslim, and ridiculous assumptions about how lifting the ban will result in sanctions being lifted from Iran and North Korea. It’s just tiring to see the same old comments lumping Syria in with those two countries, when it so clearly doesn’t belong there.

7 replies on “On Un-Sanctioning Syria”

The mobile web is filtered (or at least it was the last time I tried, 2 weeks ago), the sites I’ve tried bring up the same message as they do via landline ISPs.

As for different ISPs blocking different things, this has been the case for a while. I remember Blogspot was available on one of the private ISPs, while SCS blocked it. The problem was, the private ISPs were no longer signing up new subscribers.

I announced the end of the Blogger ban rather breathlessly here, only to get a text from a dear friend telling me that I was completely wrong.

Are tech imports a low hanging fruit? Possibly. I always thought this element of the sanctions was the one doing the most damage. It probably affects more people than other parts of the law. And as you imply, it affects those vocal bloggers and opinion formers. So if America is trying to win ‘hearts and minds’ (I cringe at the phrase), then it’s not a bad way to start.

More likely is that this is Obama just tearing the sanctions law up piece by piece. As Moustapha said, to cancel the law completely would require Congress’s assent, which could be risky, so he’s doing it his own way. And if you want to undermine sanctions until they become meaningless, you start by removing those bans which are having the biggest effect.

I wonder what will be next. It would be symbolic, but how about allowing Syrianair to fly into American airspace. Imagine the sight of an RB landing in JFK.

The results will be just making it easier for Syrians to use IT American products, I never had a real problem with the ban [as Ordinary net user], I always find a way or another to break it, The only services that may take a place after the ban lift off is the selling of Hardwares with its guarantees, plus Financial services such as paypal which was unable to break its ban.

That’s a great news, hope we see more positive actions from both sides.

Thanks Jill.

Nice post…
If this actually happens, and I hope it does, the least it will do is open up the ability to legitimately download and use some online software that had been blocked from Syrian IP addresses. Software such as Google’s Chrome browser, and MSN Messenger which I believe was blocked at some point. As Alloush said this hasn’t actually affected users too much… most have been able to get around this by using proxy servers that make them look like they’re in another country.

There is potentially more positive impact though. If this does go ahead I believe Syrian programmers and web designers should now be able to use more complex internet applications to create fully functional ebusiness platforms. PayPal is one example, from what I know, it has been almost impossible for people to find a work-around… and then you have hosting services, access to Cloud Computing platforms (Amazon Web Services, Google Apps, SalesForce…etc.). Granted these are not mainstream necessities at the moment within Syria.. but there seems to be a few companies taking steps in this direction. It’s only a matter of time.

On the subject of whether this will encourage the Syrian government to open up some of the blocked sites, I’m not sure it will. I believe both are completely unrelated and have been implemented with completely different rationale and intentions.

[…] At present, Syrian internet users have to jump through hoops to do something as basic as downloading an update to a web browser. US companies do their best to enforce the sanctions law, by preventing their products reaching Syria. The change will make life easier for millions of people, although internet-freedom activist Jillian York says many have already found ways around the embargo: […]

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