Soft power: Russia using Syrian children to boost its profile in Syria

A Syrian child chanting a Russian song at Hmeimim airbase (RT)

A Syrian child chanting a Russian song at Hmeimim airbase (RT)

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Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

“The Russian language is difficult, but I really wanted to please the Russian sailors, who, together with pilots, helped free Syria from terrorist oppression.” On 12 June, the Russian Zvezda TV channelrun by the Russian Ministry of Defence — reported a musical concert organized by Russian sailors in the Syrian coastal Tartus governorate, marking The Russia Day. During the concert, Syrian children chanted Russian songs and expressed their gratitude to Russian forces in Syria, the channel said. 

On every occasion and national celebration in Russia, the Russian military airbase at Hmeimim in Syria and other neighboring areas controlled by the Syrian regime become a stage for Russian celebrations.

The Russian intervention in Syria started in September 2015 on the military and political levels; however, in recent years,  Russia has begun to entrench its cultural influence in Syria, mainly through introducing the Russian language in Syrian schools and asking Syrian minors to deliver songs in Russian during special occasions and celebrations.   

Exploitation of Syrian children under cultural pretenses

On the National Russia Day celebrations on 12 June, the Russian Sputnik News Agency reported that local Syrian children in Tartus congratulated and paid tribute to Russian soldiers in the city with a collection of songs in the Russian language. 

Sputnik cited the Deputy Military Commander of the Russian Logistics Support Facility of the Russian Navy in Tartus Alexander Prizyuk, saying, “We are happy to be standing next to a Russian ship on Syrian territory listening to Syrian children chanting wonderful songs in the Russian language, which greatly boosts Russian forces’ morale.”

Enab Baladi has monitored several videos of Syrian children performing Russian songs in Russian national celebrations. On 23 February, the Russian forces celebrated the Defender of the Fatherland Day at Hmeimim airbase with Syrian children’s participation. Syrian child Maha Suleiman told the Zvezda TV channel, “I am singing this song now because there is still war in my country.”

On 5 May 2020, the Russian Rusvesna media outlet published a video showing two Syrian sisters from Latakia governorate singing a Russian national song and thanking the Russian army for “saving their country” days before Victory Day, one of the Russian holidays that celebrates Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union in 1945.   

Syrian social researcher Hussam al-Saad told Enab Baladi that the use of Syrian children by the Russians in their national celebrations on Syrian territories and the consolidation of their image as “saviors of Syria” in children’s minds would produce future generations saturated by appreciation and gratitude to Russia. Syrian children would look up to Russian forces and hold them in higher regard than Syrian people without realizing that Russia is occupying their country indirectly. 

Al-Saad pointed out the crucial role of space and community in shaping children’s minds. Syrian children are inheriting their parents’ version of the “war on terrorism” narrative; therefore, children’s approach and that of their parents towards the Russians’ presence in Syria would be based on appreciation for Russian efforts that helped keep the Syrian regime in power. This way, those responsible for killing and committing human rights violations against Syrians would not be held accountable in the future.

Syrian psychiatrist Mohammed al-Dandal told Enab Baladi that children learning a new language or getting introduced to new cultures is always an added value to their development. 

Nevertheless, the exploitation of children through education to promote certain ideologies and policies would turn them into propaganda material, violate their innocence, and force them to pay the heaviest price in the future, al-Dandal said.

The psychiatrist added that parents could sometimes be their children’s worst enemies when they use them as mediums to toady a particular official or to earn certain gains. The parents themselves are often deluded and controlled by a higher authority, but that does not cancel out the fact that children are the real victims here. 

Al-Dandal pointed out that this form of psychological abuse against children exposes them to an identity crisis in adulthood. Children are indirectly forced to learn about the ideologies and culture of a foreign force or “occupier,” causing an internal conflict and affecting children’s sense of belonging, cultural pride, and connection to homeland identity.    

Promotion of Russian culture in Syria through music and educational and recreational missions

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy published an article entitled “Russia in the Middle East: A Source of Stability or a Pot-Stirrer?” in which it was mentioned that “Syria is the epicenter of Kremlin activity, which Russian President Vladimir Putin uses as a springboard to project power throughout the region, Europe, and Africa.”

The article, published last April, also said, “Nothing makes as clear a statement about Moscow’s interests as the recent unveiling of a monument to the patron saint of the Russian army, Prince Alexander Nevsky, at the Russian Hmeimim airbase in Syria. This demonstrates Russian commitment on a symbolic as well as practical level. And symbolism resonates both in the Middle East and Russia.”

The article mentioned that Moscow’s primary geopolitical interests in the Middle East are coupled with commercial aspects—mostly concerning energy and arms—in addition to cultural and religious dimensions.

For his part, al-Saad said that since Russia has signed an agreement with the Syrian government to lease Tartus seaport for 49 years, it will need non-military or political means to boost its presence and acceptance by all segments of Syrian society, and here lies the role of cultural influence. 

Al-Saad added that Russia is currently mixing politics and intellectual heritage to create a popular base through promoting its language and culture in Syrian society. By doing so, Russia would be able to interfere in various aspects of Syrians’ lives without public objection. 

Russia is primarily targeting Syrian children and young people because they can be easily fed ready-made Russian and Syrian regime narratives about the conflict in Syria. 

In a speech at a 2012 meeting of ambassadors and permanent representatives of Russia, Putin noted that “the policy of soft power provides for the promotion of Russians’ interests and approaches by persuading and attracting sympathy for their country, based on its achievements not only in material but also in spiritual culture and in the intellectual sphere.”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the concept of “soft power” as the use of a country’s cultural and economic influence to persuade other countries to do something rather than the use of military power.

US professor of political science and author of the “Soft Power” book, Joseph Nye, identified three pillars of soft power in his development of the concept, namely, political values, culture, and foreign policy. 

As part of the Syrian-Russian efforts to encourage the study and dissemination of the Russian language in Syria, the Al-Raheb Center for Training and Development based in Jableh city in Latakia governorate launched Russian language courses and made an agreement with the Russian Cultural Center in Damascus University to send Syrian children to recreational camps in Russia.  

The center also promotes “recreational trips” to Russia for 25 days for children who achieve perfect scores in Russian language courses.

According to al-Saad, the promotion of the language of the “occupier” in another country through “soft power” means was used as a strategy by all colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries under the concept of “cultural imperialism,” where a politically powerful country promotes and imposes its culture over a less powerful society.

Russia’s cultural colonialism has affected Syria before. During the period of the former Soviet Union, Syria was influenced by the socialist doctrine that framed Syrian culture and led to the production of many Russian-Arabic translations of novels, poetry, philosophical works, and other intellectual products in Syria for decades.

Aron Lund, a Russian-Syrian relations specialist at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, prepared a research paper published in 2019 by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs under the title “From Cold War to Civil War: 75 Years of Russian-Syrian Relations.” In the paper, Lund said that “Decades of bilateral cooperation have of course exposed many ordinary Syrians to Russian influences.”

“Before the war, the Syrian Association of Alumni from Russian Universities reportedly counted 35,000 members,” the paper mentioned. According to the paper, Syria’s Ministry of Education decided to offer Russian as an optional second foreign language (the alternative is French) after English at the high school level.

Statistics released last February mentioned that 217 Syrian schools teach Russian as a second language for 30,747 students taught by 190 Russian language teachers.

In December 2020, Russian soldiers in Qamishli city of northeastern Syrian gave their first Russian language lesson to nearly 40 Syrian students after the students’ school administration asked the Russian Military Police Command to help organize the opening of a Russian language classroom.

A month earlier, Aleppo city witnessed the opening of Syria’s first kindergarten to teach preschoolers the Russian language. 

Russian language teacher in Aleppo, Elena Kravtsova, said that “There is a very high demand for the Russian language,” adding that the Russian language teaching is consolidating “Syrian-Russian friendly relations and educating children.”

The Russian Cultural Center in Damascus resumed its activity more than a year following its reopening in 2019. The center opened its doors for those wishing to learn the Russian language and music, the center’s director, Nikolay Sukhov, stated to Russia Today (RT) channel last May.

Sukhov mentioned that the center resumed its courses in response to popular demands and requests, pointing out that 80 students enrolled themselves in Russian language courses, while 50 students joined the center’s music courses.

Sukhov commented on the resumption of Russian language courses at the center by saying that “It is the first step towards restoring the Russian humanitarian presence in Syria,” while plans are underway to expand these activities to other Syrian cities.

In November 2014, the Syrian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research opened the Russian Language and Literature Department at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of Damascus University.

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