As the higher education system in Syria disintegrates and 2.4 million young people in the country receive no schooling, one would be forgiven for underestimating the importance of education in the turmoil enveloping Syria. Of course, the most covered aspects of the conflict are often chemical weapons attacks and territorial battles between pro-government forces and opposition forces.
Yet, since their inception, dictators have kept a close eye on the young citizens of their regimes, for it is the young people who will carry on their legacy long after their death. On this front, the Assad regime is no different. Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, who reigned as president from 1971 to 2000, pursued a policy of recruiting and indoctrinating young people for his Baath Party.
A similar goal continues under his successor. The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), a research and advocacy organization that monitors and analyzes education, has published two reports, one in 2001 and the other in 2018, demonstrating a clear continuity in the Syrian program under regime-controlled areas over the past twenty years. Common themes included virulent anti-Semitism, a broader atmosphere of intolerance, and an insistence on the regime’s righteousness.
Before 2011 and the uprising against the regime, all schoolchildren had to study the vast subject of quamiyya, or nationalism, which included singing “long live Assad, I love the Baath” before the start of the school day. The “National Education” course teaches the fundamentals of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, whose Secretary General is of course Bashar al-Assad, and Arab nationalism. He refers to Hafez al-Assad as the “eternal leader” of the nation. While education has always been a tool of the regime, in the midst of the civil war it became an active weapon. Muhammad Masud, an expert on authoritarianism at the University of Massachusetts Boston, details how the party began “using playbooks to attack opponents, display its power, and deny accusations of human rights abuses.” , using education “as part of a systematic approach”. process of maintaining control of the country” alongside “brute force and ruthless military might”.
The class as a battlefield
Since 2011, the importance of education has been reflected in attempts by warring groups to reform the education system in areas under their control. Over the past decade, students have gone through wildly disparate curricula depending on which faction rules the field in which they are being educated. Those living in regime-controlled localities are subject to the same indoctrination that those living under an Assad regime have grown accustomed to over the past half-century. The regime is not the only leader to pursue an educational dogma. Those in rebel-held territory experience parallel systems. Educational courses imposed by the Islamic State (ISIS) exchange science, mathematics and reason for “Jihad and sacrifice for the love of God.”
Unsurprisingly, anti-regime groups have sought to end regime-sponsored indoctrination, only for it to be replaced with alternative forms of political and religious proselytizing. In 2015, Muhannad Hadi and Mohab Zaidan reported on the system experienced by children in Idlib, an area controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the so-called Syrian Salvation Government, which had abolished the “ nationalism” and all. related to the regime. Children in the so-called “liberated areas”, rather than honoring the Assad and Ba’ath flags, started the school day by saluting the Salafist and Salafist-Jihadist flags and honoring the “Islamic Caliphate” and the Prophet Muhammad. Children in ISIS-controlled territories have been denied the opportunity to study subjects such as history, art and music due to the “depravity” they are said to inspire. In the north of the country, the Ministry of Education of the Syrian interim government, with support from Doha, has printed millions of pro-opposition revised textbooks and distributed them in opposition-held areas.
Such policies constitute what might be called “positive” limitations on governments to indoctrinate their citizens. But almost as important are the “negative” limitations, that is, what academics and students cannot or will not say. Self-censorship has long been a feature of autocratic regimes, and Syria is no different. Unsurprisingly, it was one of twenty-three countries to receive an “E Status” ranking on the 2020 Academic Freedom Index, placing it among such unfavorable comparators as North Korea, Eritrea, Iran and Turkmenistan. The regime has arrested allegedly “disloyal” teachers, no doubt contributing in part to the many educators who left their jobs, numbering 180,000 in 2018.
Shaping young people’s worldviews
IMPACT-se’s 2018 analysis found that the regime not only strongly shapes young people’s views of their own nation, but also their perception of the outside world. The multi-faceted civil (and proxy) war in Syria is reflected in the textbooks children are exposed to.
Unsurprisingly, Russia is perceived extremely positively. Since 2014, foreign language studies include Russian, and students now choose between French and Russian as a second foreign language (English is the first). This is undoubtedly a coup for the regime in Moscow as well. During the Cold War, thousands of young scholars from the Third World were invited to study at Patrice Lumumba University (now the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia) with the aim of strengthening Soviet soft power in non-aligned countries. While Russian-Syrian relations have not developed to such an extent in the modern era, the representation of Russia in the Syrian school curriculum reflects the strong support given to Assad by Russia.
Conversely, Turkey, which has maintained a strong anti-regime stance, is denigrated. Its “pan-Turkish Ottoman and imperialist impulse” is presented as a threat to Syria’s pan-Arab ideology. IMPACT-se found that Turkey’s approach to Islamism and the Islamic way of life is portrayed by the regime’s textbooks as incompatible with the “Syrian worldview”.
On the other hand, IMPACT-se analysts have found, also unsurprisingly, that Israel, alongside its Western allies, is portrayed very negatively. It is not directly named but simply dubbed “the racist/terrorist/Zionist entity,” and Jews are the subject of age-old anti-Semitic tropes. With regard to Israel and the states with which it is in perpetual conflict, the Assad regime peddles revisionist history, teaching that Israel is a terrorist state and that Syria’s support for terrorism in Lebanon, Iraq and in Israel is “resistance”. What is perhaps most disturbing is that it teaches that “all means are legitimate in the war against him, including terrorism and suicide bombings”.
Such sentiment is not only evident in textbooks and the education system, but also more widely in the media. Virulent anti-Semitism has been a mainstay of the regime for decades, as shown by the long list of conspiracy theories peddled in the regime-sanctioned media and Assad’s disturbing story on the subject. The minds of young Syrians are poisoned by anti-Semitic and violent messages at school and at home.
In light of the above, it is not surprising that the researchers concluded that large parts of the curriculum fall short of UNESCO’s standards and guidelines for education, peace and tolerance. On the contrary, the program is riddled with lies that support the regime’s twisted worldview and impose it on malleable young people.
What is clear is that any process of reconciliation and reconstruction in Syria will not only be a physical process focusing on the reconstruction of towns and villages, but also a mental process focusing on the rehabilitation of millions of bruised young people.
Currently, those with access to education are indoctrinated, which has contributed to the nation’s uproar, the 2018 IMPACT-se analysis concluded. Instead of intolerance, sacrifice and messages slavish pro-regime children must be taught objectively. Classrooms should be places free of ideology and full of curiosity and progress, not simply theaters for the pursuit of conflict by other means.
In Syria, at least at present, the pen is not, as they say, mightier than the sword; rather, both are deployed in conjunction with each other and serve the same insidious purposes.
Marcus Sheff is the CEO of the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se). He has held positions as a political reporter at The Nation as well as an editor at The Jerusalem Post. He has also held positions at Dow Jones International, Advanstar Inc. and The Israel Project.