A Long Prepared Loss of Human Capital

A Long Prepared Loss of Human Capital

A school that has been shelled by Assad militias
A school that has been shelled by Assad militias — Image Credits


A Long Prepared Loss of Human Capital

How politics were more important than education in Syria
In 2002, Syria’s former minister of defence, Lieutenant General Mustafa Tlass, published a book in which he gives an account of the events from a critical period in the power-struggle between Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat. From beginning to end this account manages to highlight the wisdom of Hafez while exposing the disasters and abuse of power for which Rifaat was responsible before he was expelled from the country. At points, his account touches on Rifaat’s relationship with university. In 1975, he wrote,

“When Major General Rifaat was affiliated with the university (Faculty of History) the head of the faculty, Dr. Mohammed Khair Fares, complained to me that Rifaat was turning up on examination days accompanied by a group of bodyguards and none of the invigilators dared say a thing to him. What should I do? he wanted to know. I told him: Don’t do a thing; he’ll never end up working for you as a history professor, anyway.”[1]

Such exercise of power within the university environment was not confined to the conduct of individuals who occupied positions of authority, but went further, with the ruling regime setting up a comprehensive system of intellectual and security-based control within both this environment and all institutions of learning in general. In 1974, the Baathists followed the example of totalitarian regimes elsewhere by founding an organization to indoctrinate Syrians with the party creed from a young age, an organization known as Vanguards of the Baath. The Youth of the Revolution Union was also established, which,

“changed from being an organization for Baath Party youth into a body of which membership was compulsory for all young people. Affiliation with the Baath Party at secondary school level was enjoined by a process of intimidation and scare-tactics and necessary for obtaining a position at university and subsequently, for securing government employment. At university level, the National Union for the Students of Syria became an entirely Baathist organization: the instrument of the university’s militarization and the insertion of militarism into the heart of university life via the introduction of a compulsory military training course (for which one whole day a week was set aside) and summer camps, attendance at which was later regarded as constituting compulsory military service and which provided a kind of indoctrination for university students.”[2]

From this one gains an idea of the close interest the Syrian authorities have taken in education over the past four decades, an interest that is at heart both negative and contradictory. While education at all levels has long been the state’s last  priority in terms of budget and expenditure, or in terms of attention paid to the modernization of the curriculum and creating an appropriate environment for scholarly research, its primary focus has always been to monitor educational institutions and foster a culture of subservience, fear and the worship of the “iconic leader”, not to mention to stifle individual initiatives and freedom of expression, promulgate the doctrinal ideology of the Baath Party and enhance the students’ awareness of security issues by standardizing his way of life and his physical, mental and psychological development.

On these foundations was erected what could be called “the society of fear” in which,

“the art of writing reports and informing flourished, where the informant became the model of the ideal citizen and a kind of congruence between patriotism and loyalty to the authorities was established.”[3]

The sheer longevity of these foundations, and the construction of this social contract upon them which was maintained for the duration of the Assad family’s time in power, makes it possible to explain why the school principle in Deraa could inform on eighteen of his pupils[4]who had written anti-regime slogans on their school walls. It also helps us understand the security services’ brutal response, arresting the students on February 27, 2011 and later sending them to Damascus where they were tortured and their fingernails ripped out.

Today, two years since the start of the Syrian revolution, it seems obvious that the security strategy employed against the schoolchildren of Deraa was just one part of a comprehensive strategy that encompassed Syria’s entire social, economic, political and military infrastructure, as does the extent to which this was a strategy governed by a political nihilism that could be best summed up by the slogan “Assad or we burn the country.” This was the only slogan, of the many the regime has championed since the Baath Party came to power, to prove itself both effective and credible: after all, the destruction visited on the country’s infrastructure and economy was no greater than that experienced by Syrian society, nor will the task of repairing an estimated 60 per cent of Syrian buildings be any more difficult than patching up the psychological, mental and physical damage to approximately six million homeless, displaced and exiled Syrians, 160,000 detainees, the more than one million individuals subjected to forcible detention since the start of the revolution, the more than 60,000 disappeared and the 250,000 wounded, of whom 20,000 have been permanently disabled.[5]

Syrian schools and the ongoing crisis

The security services’ violent response to peaceful social activism by the wide spectrum of Syrians who initially took to the streets demanding reform, transformed the revolution into an insoluble crisis that has embraced all aspects of life, including education. This response had a direct impact on the educational process, with many students and teachers losing their lives, while in 2012 a mere 22.8 per cent of the country’s five million students and 365,000 teachers and administrators managed to continue their studies and work, according to a report released by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research[6]. Of Syria’s 22,000 schools, 2,362 have been totally or partially destroyed (an estimated loss of 5.7 billion lira), the majority of them in areas that have witnessed military operations. It is worth mentioning here that the education budget fell from 35.4 billion lira in 2010 to 26 billion in 2011, and for 2012 estimates have put it at around 19.5 billion lira. The Ministry of Education has indicated that some 1,956 schools have been employed as refuges for displaced persons[7]. According to the Sana Revolutionary website [i] a number of schools in Damascus have been converted into detention centres or have recently been bombed and closed. This deteriorating situation prompted UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado to say last September, “that ensuring education for Syrian children is going to be an immense challenge eighteen months after the start of protests calling for the fall of the regime.”[8]

And indeed, despite the Ministry of Education’s introduced double shift program of morning and evening classes, the proportion of students dropping out is now very high indeed. To take a few examples, at the Mohammed Kurd Ali Girls’ School in the Damascus suburb of al-Qadam non-attendance currently stands at 80 per cent, the al- Qaa Technical School in al-Midan has been converted into an army post, while the Talha Bin Abdullah School is now a refugee shelter. Karima Mouin*, an official at the Ministry of Education’s Examination Department, has highlighted the complications affecting students taking their primary and secondary exams, since schools must forward certain papers to the ministry to register their students, but after all the displacement and destruction that has taken place, none of the students know where their papers are. As for the teachers, their ranks have been thinned considerably, not least by a decree, issued by the minister Hazwan al-Wiz, ordering 4,484 of the ministry’s employees to return to their provinces of origin.[9]

The numbers vary according to province, and even within a single province, as a consequence of specific security threats making parents reluctant to send their children to school, in addition to the difficulties faced by large families of refugees and displaced persons in registering their children in their new places of residence, a result of the schools’ limited capacity or financial hardship.

In the capital Damascus, all UNRWA schools for the education of Palestinian refugees have closed their doors, especially after the events that took place in and around the Yarmouk refugee Camp in December 2012. Damascus-based Ministry of Education employee and activist MS has informed us that the majority of Palestinian school and university students in the district failed to attend examinations for the first term of academic year 2012/13, while some enrolled at other schools in Damascus. Ibrahim Ahmad* mentioned the severe administrative hurdles laid down for them by the ministry: the majority of students do not possess identity papers as their schools were shelled, and without these papers other schools will refuse to accept them. The schools have even refused to subject UNRWA students to an evaluation test (an examination to determine which class the student should be placed in, based on their current knowledge), a refusal backed by a ministerial decree, despite the fact that a majority of other displaced students who submitted requests to enroll at new schools were given evaluation tests and placed. The political nature of the ministerial decree seems to be a response to the participation of Palestinians in the revolution. Former spokesman of the Syrian Foreign Ministry Jihad Makdisi while still in office said that,

“Palestinians are guests who are behaving badly; they should have some respect for the generosity they’ve been shown by the Syrian authorities.”[10]

Yet the very first article of Law 260, passed unanimously by the Syrian Parliament and ratified by President Shukri Al Quwatli on July 10, 1956, and which is still valid today, states that,

“Palestinians resident within the territories of the Syrian Republic on the date of this law’s issuance, shall be considered as Syrian citizens as regards their rights under all laws and procedures connected with rights of employment, labour, trade and education, whilst retaining their original nationality.”[11]

Syrian universities and the revolutionary movement

Following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, it was only natural that peaceful demonstrations would march from the country’s state and private universities, whose students had long experience of repressive security tactics. Over the decades many students have been arrested for their opinions and affiliations with opposition parties and had languished in jail for years without trial. Some of these individuals were barred from finishing their studies after they had been released, when all their civil rights were denied them.

 The situation stayed much the same under the trumpeted “opening up” of al-Assad fils, who came to power following his father’s death in 2000. Indeed, the ideological and security assessments that determined university enrollment under the father became class-based under the son, without universities ever ridding themselves of a security service presence, nor freeing themselves from the yoke of party doctrine.[12]

The consequences of this long history of security interference surfaced with startling clarity in the treatment meted out to the student demonstrators, especially in the universities of Damascus and Aleppo. There, the majority of faculty and department buildings were converted into detention and torture centres, while the Student Union became the location where the shabiha (or government backed militias) assembled and were armed, funded and generally made ready to oppress the demonstrators, torturing them to death if need be.

In response to the shameful part being played by this purely Baathist organization, Syrian students formed “The Union of Free Syrian Students” with the aim of coordinating civil activism at demonstrations and sit-ins and overseeing various operations such as the distribution of pamphlets, signwriting, issuing communiqués, documenting (where possible) crimes committed by the Syrian security forces against students, keeping track of those facing administrative punishments or otherwise dismissed from their universities and setting up websites and social media pages to list the names of detainees and the locations and circumstances of their arrests, etc. According to Leila Said*, an activist and member of The Union of Free Syrian Students, the organization’s Damascus branch managed to document the fore- and surnames of seventy-four students who were dismissed from Damascus University or prevented from continuing their studies on the orders of the university’s presidency, in addition to the full names and date of birth of ninety-seven martyrs and five more who died under torture.

At the University of Aleppo, dubbed “Revolution University” by activists for its exceptional efforts from the very start of the revolution, the first demonstration set out from the Faculty of Literature on April 14, 2011. On May 3, 2012, with the number of student demonstrators standing at more than five thousand, the security services raided the campus firing live rounds. Four students were killed and twenty-eight injured, while more than two hundred were detained and university buildings set alight in revenge. Hundreds of students were thrown out of their residences, which were converted into military barracks and lairs for the shabiha, with some used as mortar and rocket positions to rain fire on anti-regime neighbourhoods. The university was then temporarily closed by order of its president[13]. On January 15, 2013, the first day of university examinations, Syrian fighter jets bombed the Faculty of Engineering, perpetrating a horrific massacre in which The Union of Free Syrian Students claims that eighty-two students lost their lives[14]. As the revolution continues, so do the assassinations and arrests, the cleansing operations and forcible displacement, and the impotence and disunity shown by the international community towards the crimes that the Syrian regime has committed against civilians shows no sign of changing.

In two years of revolution against the authorities, Syria has lost and continues to lose a significant proportion of its infrastructure and human capital (teachers, supervisors and students), things that will require many years to make up. It is no secret that the total breakdown in this system, especially in the educational process, will have catastrophic consequences for human capital and thus for the country’s entire developmental process in the short, medium and long term. And yet, however high the cost paid by those calling for freedom, a comprehensive and careful examination of the current scene and the history of populations suggests that the course taken by Syrians admits of no way back, no return; that a profound commitment by the younger generations to the wave of emancipation and democratization, which is currently breaking on the Arab world after sweeping through Eastern Europe, Latin America and other regions in the world, is the way to ensure a future in which any tyranny, no matter what political system lies ahead, is broken, and the most powerful incentive to rebuild the homeland and its institution.


End Notes

[i] Parallel to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA)‘s website, with the beginning of the revolution its revolutionary counterpart was established. http://www.sana-revo.com/news/

* All the names of the activists mentioned in this article are pseudonyms.

First published in Arabic on HBS Middle East Office website on April 26, 2013



[1] Three Months That Shook Syria, Lieutenant General Mustafa Tlass: America urges Rifaat Al Assad to seize power in 1984 (http://www.moustafatlass.org/index.php?d=280&id=608)


[2] See. Yassin Al Hajj Saleh, Towards a Progressive and Democratic University: The University Question and the Issue of Students in Syria, Paper published by Al Hiwar Al Mutamaddin (Civilized Debate) on October 9, 2005 (http://www.ahewar.org/debat/show.art.asp?aid=%2047485)

[3] Ibid.

[4] The names of the schoolchildren arrested on Fberuary 27, 2011 are: Maawiya Faisal Seyasna; Youssef Adnan Sweidan; Samer Ali Seyasna; Ahmed Jihad Abazeid; Eissa Hassan Aboul Qabbas; Alaa Mansour Al Rasheidat; Mustafa Anwar Abazeid; Nidal Anwar Aabazeid; Akram Anwar Abazeid; Bashir Farouq Abazeid; Nayf Muwwafaq Abazeid; Ahmed Shukri Al Kerad; Abdel Rahman Nayf Muwwafaq Abazeid; Mohammed Ayman Minawwar Al Kerad; Ahmed Nayf Al Rasheidat Abazeid; Nabil Emad Al Rasheidat Abazeid; Mohammed Amin Yassin Al Rasheidat Abazeid.



[5] Figures taken from the Syrian Shuhada website (http://syrianshuhada.com) as published at http://all4syria.info/Archive/69632 under the title In Numbers: A new statistical portrait of the revolution up till January 2013

[6] The Syrian Centre for Policy Research, Its Roots and Economic and Social Consequences, January 2013 (the report can be viewed at this address: http://scpr-syria.org/ar)

[7] p.74, Ibid.

[8] Violence Causes Shaky Start to the Academic Year in Syria, al-Arabiya.net, September 16, 2012 (http://www.alarabiya.net/default.html)


[9] News report: Syrian Education Ministry: 4,484 Employees Transferred to Their Provinces, DP News website, July, 14, 2012 (http://www.dp-news.com/pages/detail.aspx?articleid=126210)

[12] Yassin Al Hajj Saleh, Ibid.

[13] Syrian Security Raids Aleppo University and Kills and Arrests Scores, Al-Quds website, May 4, 2012 (http://www.alquds.com/news/article/view/id/352665%22%20%5Cl%20%22.UR-Dth39udc)


[14] Report of The Union of Free Syrian Students on the massacre at Aleppo University (https://twitter.com/mediaufss/statuses/291655737535500289)




About the Author

Maher Masoud is a Syrian writer. He graduated in philosophy from the University of Damascus and is currently developing his masters’ thesis in contemporary philosophy. He is the author of a number of published articles in numerous newspapers, periodicals and websites




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