Russia bolsters its outreach in Syria amid struggle for influence
BEIRUT - Last September, the cornerstone was laid for what was billed as Syria’s first Russian school. It is being built on 1 hectare of land presented by the Syrian government, supervised and funded by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, a scholarly organisation dating to the 1880s.
Syrian media trumpeted the story, very impressed, seemingly, by the pompous name of the organisation because it sounded majestic and royal. Little did they know that the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society was not new to Damascus, having started work during the final years of the Ottoman Empire with a prestigious all-girls school catering mainly to the Greek Orthodox community in Bab Tuma.
As the century progressed, Russia’s educational outreach eroded as the French took over Syria, setting up schools that were nationalised by the socialite state in the mid-1960s. The French curriculum outlived the colonisers, however, and remained embedded in Syrian elementary and high schools.
Due to the war in Syria, however, Russia’s influence is rapidly returning, not only in politics and military affairs but in education as well, as Moscow prepares for a new generation of Syrians, educated and trained along its standards.
Earlier this year, the Russian language was inserted as a second language in the Syrian curriculum for Grades 7-11. A department for the Russian language opened at Damascus University in mid-2018.
During the years of the Soviet Union, when Syria was a staunch ally of Moscow, thousands of Syrians were sent on state scholarship to study in the Eastern Bloc. This was at a time when access to Europe and the United States was becoming more difficult.
They returned to create an influential community in Syria, especially in the public sector, composed of doctors, engineers, educators, artists and army officers. Their influence can still be felt throughout Damascus through the large number of buildings erected during that period in dull Soviet style.
Briefly during the post-Soviet Union period, this community went mute, no longer able to defend a system of education that was considered obsolete and affiliated with a bygone era. That went along with the US sponsored Syrian-Israeli peace process, which witnessed a warming of Syrian-US ties, accumulating with a visit to Damascus in 1994 by US President Bill Clinton.
Today, the US Embassy is closed and so are the American culture centre and school in Syria. The French school is still there but the French government has abandoned it, leaving it in the hands of Francophone Syrians.
Taking the relationship to a new level, Moscow started accepting young Syrians wanting to study at its military academy — for free if they are the children of Syrian Army soldiers.
The long-term objective is to create a generation of Russian-trained military cadets who are well-versed with Russian standards and who speak the language flawlessly, eventually becoming the backbone of the Syrian Army.
Elsewhere in Syria, the Turks are doing the same thing, only in territories snatched on their border with Syria in 2016. Turkish flags fly high at Syrian schools in Jarabulus and Azaz, where the Turkish language has been revived, 100 years after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire.
At those schools, Ottoman history is being revisited in very favourable light. Textbooks teach young students to forget everything they had studied before in state-run schools about the brutality and backwardness of Ottoman influence.
The Iranians have been less successful when it comes to grass-roots influence, especially in education, due to centuries’ old tension between Sunnis and Shias.
Very few Syrians have chosen Iran as an education destination, despite the high reputation of Iranian universities, especially in medicine and the sciences. Likewise, no Iranian school has opened in Damascus. Farsi remains alien to the people of Syria and no Iranian programmes air on Syrian state-run television.
This is noteworthy compared to the high number of Turkish soaps that were very popular throughout the Middle East prior to 2011, dubbed into Arabic, set in the posh scenery of Istanbul and aired on the Saudi-owned MBC Network.
Those programmes disappeared in recent years, due to Turkey’s tension with Saudi Arabia, especially after the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and an attempt is to translate Russian works into Arabic, trying to attract Arab viewers with their action-filled plots and sexy women. No such attempt is being made to translate Iranian soap operas into Arabic.