Parallel education systems in Syria

Originally commissioned January 2016

The presence of at least four different ideologically-influenced education systems in Syria is cementing divisions, impinging future reconciliation or reunification, and serves as a recruitment tool for armed groups.

  • In opposition-held areas the education system has had an ideological overhaul, cementing anti-Shia sentiment among the youth, damaging the possibility for future reconciliation.
  • Daesh, through a revised education system, works to indoctrinate youth in its territory to create lasting support for the group’s ideology even in the event of military defeat.
  • In Kurdish-held territory, the introduction of Kurdish-language education and the removal of the Arabic alphabet, is cementing a distinct and separate Kurdish identity.

Many parties to the Syrian conflict, as well as the wider regional sectarian-inflected power struggle, use education as a means of solidifying control. Education under the Assad regime has long contained pro-regime content, with classes devoted to nationalism, as well as a pro-Shia version of history taught. For example, the Sunni, Ottoman Empire is described as a conqueror, while the Shia, Safavid Empire is not. Extra-curricular youth groups seek to instill loyalty to the regime, and also hold militaristic undertones.

Emphasizing a secular identity for Syria, the Baathist ideology espoused by the Assad regime has always been popular among minorities, not to say that there were no Sunnis who supported it. While resentment is reportedly growing towards the regime even among Alawites, the actions of Sunni militants will likely reinforce the regime’s supporters’ adherence to its absolutist position. This will make accepting any post-conflict compromises harder.

Since the start of the conflict, the opposition has changed the curriculum in areas under its control, with ideological aims. This has included removing nationalism classes and providing a different interpretation of history. These activities have been funded by Qatar, for one, which provided millions of re-worked textbooks. Qatar has thrown its support by Islamist opposition groups in Syria, as well as in Libya and elsewhere, which use the altered curriculum as a means of recruitment. While pro-regime propaganda could not remain in the curriculum, the possible subtle inclusion of anti-Shia sentiment and increased anti-Shia rhetoric will seriously hamper any future reconciliation. Parents reportedly fear sending children to schools for fear of future retaliation. Syrian youth, divided along sectarian lines before the conflict, are even more so now.

One Assad regime policy, especially since the 1982 Islamist uprising, has been not to acknowledge sectarian differences. The Islam taught in schools was Sunni, and mention of differences was discouraged in the public sphere, with ‘sectarian’ used as a slur to discredit political opponents. Nonetheless, in the public sphere Shia practices were encouraged and places of worship promoted. The aim was to have Alawites appear part of ‘mainstream’ Islam, a consequence being that many Syrians had limited knowledge of the beliefs of their neighbors, other than based on rumor. This provides poor ground on which to start reconciliation.

Curricula in Syria’s neighboring countries also hold sectarian undertones. Critics have labeled Jordan’s curriculum as sectarian, with textbooks containing language that implies being Jordanian is to be Sunni and derogatory language to describe Christians and other groups. Iraq’s history and Islam curricula contain subtly pro-Shia elements, reinforcing Sunnis’ sense of political rejection. Discrimination is also reportedly felt by Sunnis in academia in Iraq. Ongoing narratives that reinforce sectarianism in Syria’s neighbors will also hamper a resolution of the conflict, as these countries are significant stakeholders in the Syrian conflict themselves.

Meanwhile, Daesh has introduced radical changes to the curriculum in areas under its control. After the capture of territory, for example, teachers received ‘Sharia’ training before being allowed to work again. The changes to the system effect every age group, with even primary school-age children receiving the new curriculum. Daesh has made private lessons illegal, making its system the only option available. Reports from mothers who have fled, as well as teachers in Turkey in areas with refugee populations coming from Daesh territory, suggest that some children have taken on board the rhetoric imparted to them.

Details of the changes under the Daesh education system point to a carefully-planned overhaul, implemented consistently across its territory. The changes appear much more radical than those of other opposition groups and their uniformity points to a larger plan of social engineering, of which many of their activities and propaganda output form a part. Some lessons focus explicitly on how the family should function, according to Daesh ideology, and day-to-day societal interactions, including between genders, reaffirming Daesh’s policy of ritualizing and fetishizing unequal gender relationships. Daesh’s uniform implementation of these policies suggest it is attempting to deeply embed its social changes.

Militarization and violence also feature strongly in the Daesh education system, part of a broader militarization of society. Abu Nakr Baji, likely a pseudonym for a known al-Qaeda contributor, produced Management of Savagery in 2004, a guide to and justification for Jihadi groups to use violence to advance their aims. This text appears to underpin Daesh’s use of violence and spectacle against its opponents and in asserting control of territory. For Baji, one use of violence is to polarize societies so as to “drag the masses into battle”. Additionally, Daesh may be using a policy of triggering cognitive dissociation in people to make them easier to indoctrinate by forcing them to witness and engage in shocking violence, although this is difficult to determine. Even when defeated militarily, the societal damage Daesh has inflicted will be severe and will pose a challenge to reconstruction and reconciliation efforts.

In areas controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), education in Kurdish has been introduced, as has the use of the Latin alphabet, although schools continue to also use Arabic texts. This change will likely reinforce attempts to cement a separate and distinct identity in majority-Kurdish areas. The PYD claims that people in territory under its control are receiving revolutionary re-education, attempting to embed their libertarian socialist ideology. These efforts will increase the likelihood of the longevity of Kurdish separatist aspirations in Syria and in the region.

The ideology of the PYD is, on paper, inclusive, and education in Arabic and Assyrian is reportedly also permitted. Nonetheless, tensions run high in areas where Kurdish and Arab areas border and overlap, and this may well be the cause of future friction. Any post-conflict Syrian state would have a hard time reversing Kurdish gains militarily, not least due to the increasingly embedded separate identity in the north.

Millions of young Syrians are receiving interrupted or no education at all, either because they have fled their homes or because of fighting. Schools for Syrians in Turkey have in many cases chosen the Libyan curriculum to avoid controversies. There are few cases of Syrian children being integrated into local schools in Turkey and Jordan. Education reform programs in Lebanon, focusing on overcoming sectarian differences, are one rare example of positive change. In short, the poor quality and inconsistent education many Syrians are receiving will make the next generation, wherever they find themselves, less resilient to the instability that may breed future conflicts.

The multiple education systems are embedding differences created by the Syrian conflict, making future reconciliation or reunification in the country harder. Many of them serve as recruiting tools, or at least contain militaristic elements. In some places, groups are seeking to alter the societies over which they have control, making them potentially less willing to compromise in the future. The wider sectarian and ethnic conflicts in the region are fed by and feed into rhetoric and events emerging from Syria. Any resolution to the Syrian and regional conflicts will be affected by education and the longer the conflict continues the deeper ingrained such divisions will become.

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