Under UN auspices, Syrian regime uses educational curriculum as propaganda tool in Syria 

Students sitting in a classroom at one of the Syrian primary schools - 2020 (Reuters)

Under UN auspices, Syrian regime uses educational curriculum as propaganda tool in Syria 

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Zeinab Masri | Jana al-Issa

In 2016, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published an investigative article accusing the United Nations (UN) of granting contracts worth tens of millions of US dollars to people closely tied with the Syrian regime. In response, the UN spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, said that the Syrian government insists that UN agencies can only work with a list of partners approved by al-Assad.

Dujarric pointed out that the UN chooses from lists provided by the Syrian government based on its own assessment of the UN partners’ capacity to deliver humanitarian aid. The UN generally needs first the government’s consent to work in any region or country, pointing out that UN agencies work in a very “challenging environment.”

In the past few months, the media coverage of UN agencies’ engagement with pro-government companies and organizations has increased. The agencies have been accused of committing human rights violations in Syria and cooperating with the Syrian regime outside the framework of humanitarian aid. 

Human rights defenders called on UN agencies to reform their work methods and be transparent and committed to the principles and plan of humanitarian action in Syria with respect for human rights. They also urged them not to engage with actors alleged to have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Nonetheless, the UN continues to cooperate with alleged war criminals on several levels, most notably financial and educational cooperation.

In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi discusses the moral responsibility of the UN agencies during their work in Syria and focuses on the support provided by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to education in regime-held areas, such as training teachers and reprinting formal school curricula. 

These curricula could carry a false narrative of what happened in Syria over the past decade, especially after the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Education (MoE) announced that it will add a program titled “the Causes of War in Syria” to the formal school curriculum.

Enab Baladi talked with educational experts about the Syrian regime’s attempts to influence the new generation by including information in its curriculum that reinforces its version of events in Syria. Enab Baladi also discusses the possibility of keeping politics out of education. 

 UN prints textbooks of certain subjects 

“The Syrian Ministry of Education (MoE) is the main partner for UNICEF’s work in education”

UNICEF supports education in regime-held areas through Syrian MoE in three forms: textbook printing, curricula, teacher training. 

Intensive education programs based on the Syrian national curriculum

One of the systematic approaches UNICEF follows for enhancing children’s access to education is providing support to intensive/accelerated and compensatory education programs. Those programs include the Curriculum B program and the Self-Learning program.

“UNICEF also supports building the capacity of educators and teachers. The Syrian Ministry of Education (MoE) is the main partner for UNICEF’s work in education,” UNICEF Regional Chief of Communications, Juliette Touma.

In an email to Enab Baladi, Touma said that “UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Education in reviewing Curriculum B and aligning it to the new national curriculum [Curriculum A]. The process has resulted in an enhanced quality of 28 reviewed Curriculum B books with neutral, culturally sensitive, and pedagogically sound content. The content is also intended to be inclusive, seeks to defy gender stereotypes, caters for the emotional wellbeing of children, and provides quality learning opportunities for children.[The Syrian national curriculum is not within the scope of the UNICEF-supported curriculum review process].”

Curriculum B is an accelerated learning program, distributed inside schools, and intended to help children who missed out on their education during the conflict to catch up to their peers. According to Touma, combining two academic years in one helps students make up for their missed learning classes in half the required time.  

The Self-Learning Program (SLP) is designed jointly by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), UNICEF, and the MoE to assist out-of-school Syrian children affected by the crisis, including those living in hard-to-reach areas with limited or discontinued access to education, to address their learning gaps in community-based facilities/classrooms or at home with the help of teachers, volunteers or caregivers.

Based on the Syrian national curriculum, the SLP material is intended to support out-of-school boys and girls, including over-aged children who are at the educational level of Grades 1-9, to continue their learning. 

Touma explained that the curriculum prepared by the Syrian government’s Ministry of Education is not within the scope of the curriculum review process supported by UNICEF.

The SLP includes the following subjects: Arabic, English, French, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Citizenship Education, History, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT), according to the program’s website.

On 14 March 2016, Hazwan al-Waz, former Minister of Education, explained that the systematic follow-up for the educational development process of intensive education materials within the curriculum is based on combining two academic years in one year, in cooperation with UNICEF.

Al-Waz said that the target group of students is distributed in special classes. These students follow a basic education curriculum, and they are subject to a study plan developed by the Ministry of Education. Based on the plan and curriculum established for four years, they can go from first to eighth grade within four levels (two academic years in one).

He added that this intensive education system will come into force once the textbooks of the four study levels are written. (The Ministry of Education specialists will prepare nearly 28 textbooks). It is noteworthy that the selection criteria of teachers, who will be tasked to teach this category of students after undergoing training courses, were set. 

The basic education curriculum includes category B for the first and second levels. Arabic, Mathematics, and Science are the subjects that will be taught in these levels, according to the Syrian Ministry of Education website.

A girl cheerfully showing her book at a school in Damascus (Reuters)

A girl cheerfully showing her book at a school in Damascus (Reuters)

UNICEF prints curricula

Touma explained that “UNICEF supports the Ministry of Education by helping provide quality learning to tens of thousands of children in the country, through the printing of textbooks of the Syrian national curriculum [requested by the Ministry as an area for support due to the severe lack of learning material and resources]. Before printing, a detailed review of the books is conducted against the criteria of cultural sensitivity and neutrality. The review provides UNICEF with grounds for evidence-based decision-making in its response.”

UNICEF supports the printing of textbooks of specific subjects, including English, French, Math, and Science. However, UNICEF does not contribute to printing History, Geography, Citizenship Education, or Social Studies textbooks. 

Touma did not clarify whether UNICEF supports the printing of Arabic and Russian textbooks and industrial and commercial vocational high school curricula in Syria.

What about training teachers?

Juliette Touma, UNICEF Regional Chief of Communications, said, “as part of its support to education, UNICEF, partnering with the MoE, trains educational personnel on pedagogy and child-centered approaches as well as psychosocial support, early childhood education, active learning, inclusive education, classroom management, and life skills; thus, building their capacity, improving the learning processes and helping them better support children and students.”

According to the website of the Children of Syria campaign launched by UNICEF in 2013, UNICEF spent more than 22.5 million USD on education in Syria in 2018. These expenses included training about 28,000 teachers on the “new national curriculum,” active learning methods, launching Curriculum B, and providing a self-learning program.

The United Nations is not trustworthy

Demands for neutral bodies to audit Syrian school curricula 

On 8 November, the Syrian Minister of Education, Darem Tabbaa, announced that the Ministry would introduce a program called “the Causes of War on Syria” into the formal school curriculum over the next year. 

The program “presents what happened in Syria for the benefit of the entire society, analyses causes, consequences, and effects, and identifies means to avoid such a war in the future,” Tabbaa said.

He added that the new program would discuss “the underlying reasons that led to the emergence and spread of terrorism,” as well as “the mechanisms that Syria has pursued in this aggressive project.” 

According to Tabbaa, the program materials will be included in a number of school subjects, such as Arabic, History, Social Studies, Religious Studies, and National Education, without specifying the target group of students.

A committee including deans of the faculties of arts, law, and political science, in addition to researchers in Islamic history, international relations, and law and writers who wrote about the war in Syria, will set a plan, distribute tasks, and discuss the sources of the new program’s materials, Tabbaa added.  

Syrian journalist and human rights defender Mansour al-Omari said that school textbooks in Syria should be vetted by independent competent human rights and civil society organizations, not affiliated with the Syrian regime. The United Nations agencies in Syria are not trustworthy due to their continuous violations and vulnerability to the regime’s pressure.

Al-Omari said to Enab Baladi: “We do not yet know what the regime’s narrative will be, but it is almost certain that it will contain elements identical to what it has been promoting for years in its media and speeches at the United Nations and international forums, in contradiction to the facts, and carrying highly biased political propaganda.”

Competent Syrian human rights and educational groups should examine any school books or new editions that United Nations agencies will print or support in any way. If there is something that contradicts the facts, carries political propaganda, or distorts the ideas of students, the United Nations must not provide any form of support.

Al-Omari added that UNICEF may not respond to media exposure and campaigns. The United Nations agencies in Syria do not change their behavior in response to the media in general. For example, media exposure did not stop the UN’s World Health Organization’s financial support to the US-sanctioned Syrian Cham Wings Airlines to transport aid to Libya, or the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s collaboration with the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS), that committed war crimes and violations against Syrian students.

Al-Omari added that if the UNICEF went on printing school materials containing false information or certain propaganda for the regime, Syrian and international human rights organizations must act to stop funding this work and communicate with the UNICEF donors to inform them of the violations to withdraw their financial support. The UN agencies operating in Syria should be pressured not to be partners in falsifying facts and history or promoting the regime which committed war crimes and crimes against humanity documented by UN reports, according to al-Omari.

Al-Omari pointed out that UN agencies and offices operating in Syria continue to support the regime and engage in violations that may sometimes amount to financing institutions and individuals who have committed war crimes, for several reasons, most notably:

– The failure of the international community and member states of the United Nations to monitor and review the work of UN agencies operating in Syria.

– The regime’s pressure and threats against UN agencies’ staffers in Syria.

– The regime’s highly probable intervention in the recruitment process of UN employees in Syria, where it might place its agents to control the work and behaviors of the rest of the employees.

– The highly probable UN staffers’ involvement with the regime in manipulating funding contracts for financial gains.

Al-Omari also told Enab Baladi that there are no neutral organizations in the regime-controlled areas, when it comes to the regime’s narrative of events. The regime committed mass atrocities against individuals or entities that adopt different narrative through enforced disappearance, torture, killing under torture, and other crimes.

Even the United Nations, which is supposed to be impartial through its ethics and work principles, has demonstrated its inability to abide by this, whether through its work or by statements of some of its officials. According to al-Omari, these agencies are clearly under the control of the regime in several aspects. There is no possibility to disagree with the regime; otherwise, the penalty would be death or killing under torture.

Students at the al-Mumayazoon private school in Syria (school’s official account on Facebook)

Students at the al-Mumayazoon private school in Syria (school’s official account on Facebook)

Nonexistent credibility 

Syrian regime to impact future generations through school curricula

The announcement by the Syrian Minister of Education of the introduction of a new curriculum in the next academic year explaining the “causes of war on Syria,” according to the regime’s narrative, has caused resentment and raised concerns among Syrian opponents of the regime, who feared the social impact this curriculum might leave on the new generation.

In fact, the majority of Syrians agree that incorporating the regime’s narrative of the events in Syria in school textbooks would impact, however little, children’s minds and psychology. 

Students might believe the regime’s version of what happened in Syria and would describe their relatives and loved ones who left the country as “terrorists, who sabotaged the country” and cheer for the Syrian regime’s army, that “triumphed over terrorism and those who wanted the country to be fragmented and ruined.”

A three-focuses fabricated narrative of Syria’s last decade

Syrian researcher and professor of pedagogy, Dr. Raymond al-Maalouli, told Enab Baladi that the regime’s exploitation of school curricula and manipulation of the educational system in Syria is not new, as it sought since the Ba’ath Party took power in the 1970s to influence Syrian youth with its ideologies. 

Al-Maalouli added that educational systems in all non-democratic countries are dominated by the ruling authority, which views education as a tool to serve its political agendas. 

Since assuming power, the Ba’ath Party’s ideologies were imposed on the National Education textbooks and the entire educational system by establishing student organizations to promote and support its ideas and vision.

Syrian students in all academic levels were required to join these institutions, including the Ba’ath Vanguard Organization, the Revolution Youth Union, and the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS). 

According to Dr. al-Maalouli, the regime’s narrative of what happened in Syria over the last decade has three focus points, with terrorism coming first, as the regime considered all its opponents “terrorists.”

The regime’s second focus is religious sectarianism. It claimed that the war in Syria was led by an Arab and Western-funded “Salafist terrorist movement,” whose objectives were “to wipe out the diversity of Syrian society and to oppress minorities.” The regime portrayed itself as the core defender of minorities to win them over to its side.  

The last and third focus for the regime is the concept of “universal conspiracy,” embodied in accusing all those who stand against the regime of “conspiring against Syria.” 

By relying on these three points, the regime managed to present its army as the “defender of Syria’s independence and freedom of Syrian people,” as well as to reinforce the principle of Syria’s resistance to Israel, according to al-Maalouli.  

A Syrian student sanitizing her hands for protection against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (Reuters)

A Syrian student sanitizing her hands for protection against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (Reuters)

The impact of regime-affiliated media on education

From the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011 to this day, the Syrian regime made up and maintained the same narrative of the causes of war on Syria, which the state media or the media linked to the regime helped to advertise and pass to Syrian people, Dr. al-Maalouli said. 

He explained that the role of media outlets linked to the regime is called the “non-formal education” in pedagogy, that is, education not delivered in schools and universities.

Al-Maalouli added that the regime realizes it cannot reorient formal education through a single book explaining the reasons for the war on Syria; therefore, it decided to print a new curriculum for all grades with contents from that book distributed on all school subjects in an attempt to ensure “more influence.”      

Will the regime succeed in imposing its narrative on future generations?

The regime is developing a new school curriculum carrying political messages to further promote its perspective on the events in Syria and serve its interests.    

The promotion of the regime’s narrative of the Syrian conflict would fracture Syrian society for many generations to come, as Syrians in regime areas would call opponents of the regime “terrorists” and loyalists “patriots.” 

Besides, the indoctrination of the regime’s ideologies to school children would place their parents under a great responsibility to clarify what really happened in Syria amid fears generated by the regime’s security restrictions. 

Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its official website and social media platforms, in which it asked its audience on whether they think the regime will succeed in imposing its narrative on the new generation by reprinting school curricula explaining the causes of war on Syria.

Forty-eight percent of participants said that the regime would fail to enforce its narrative on students, while 52 percent said that the regime would achieve its end and influence Syrian students with its perspective on the last decade’s events in Syria. 

For his part, Dr. al-Maalouli said that this strategy would ensure the regime a certain impact on future Syrian generations, no matter how little it might be. 

He added that the absence of opposition in Syria would facilitate the regime’s mission in influencing Syrian youths’ minds through the grip of its security apparatuses on the one hand and the educational cadres who fear the regime and follow its instructions on the other hand.   

The Syrian opposition’s failure to present a good model to run Syria would help the regime consolidate its account of the Syrian conflict, according to al-Maalouli, who added that Syrians are required to come up with a positive and different ruling model to represent the opposition.

Al-Maalouli said that parents have a very difficult and complicated but not impossible task to clarify facts to their children, amid zero credibility on the regime’s side in all aspects of life. 

Al-Maalouli added that the regime has nothing to support its narrative. Today’s social media’s rapid access to accurate and real news and the breaking of the fear barrier, which allowed people to expose facts and the regime’s propaganda, have made the regime’s mission to promote its ideologies more difficult than in the past decades.

Al-Maalouli concluded by saying that the regime will continue its old methods to perpetuate its narrative by using force, intimidation, oppression, and arbitrary arrests, but at a higher rate to reinforce its rule.    

The role of the media

Former professor at Damascus University and member of the educational curricula writing committee of the Syrian Ministry of Education, who used to serve as a former adviser to the Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Ahmed al-Hussein, told Enab Baladi that international organizations’ help is necessary to prevent the regime from manipulating school curricula to promote its narrative.   

The regime refuses to acknowledge arbitrary arrests or war crimes it committed, which are prohibited by international law, despite the availability of countless evidence to its acts, al-Hussein said.

He added that professional and independent Syrian media outlets can effectively point out facts and raise awareness, particularly through social media platforms and that the regime cannot isolate people in its areas from hearing or being affected by other opinions or the other version of the Syrian conflict. 

Parents are also obliged to lead their children to the truth, al-Hussein said. 

He added that the regime believes it is entitled to add “the Causes of War on Syria” materials to school curricula in its regions even if people questioned its narrative.

After regaining control of a significant part of Syrian territories with the force of arms and the help of the Russians and Iranians, the regime is trying to consolidate its military victory by promoting its version of events that took place in the last decade in Syria. 

By exploiting education to back its narrative, the regime is adopting an outdated strategy, ignoring technical development and the knowledge economy that runs the world. The regime is also disregarding the historical context, but its attempts will fail because today’s world has surpassed totalitarian regimes and mono-dimensional information, according to al-Hussein.  

Al-Hussein added that in totalitarian regimes, one cannot isolate education from politics, for education can be used as a tool to impose authority’s ideology and propaganda. 

Under such circumstances, Syrians should endeavor to build a new country where values of democracy, diversity, independent education, and science must be promoted in school curricula.     

“Today’s Syria is divided into four territories, each of which has a political direction, ideology, and vision, which it will try to impose on students by using education as a means to achieve political ends, not to spread knowledge,” al-Hussein said. 

Al-Hussein pointed out that conflict and post-conflict stages are worrying and critical periods in any country. These stages often witness strange and negative events, and Syria is an example. 

In Syria, the decade-long conflict, economic crisis, and the aftermath of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continue to affect the already dilapidated educational services.

According to UNICEF, one in three schools inside Syria can no longer be used because they were destroyed, damaged, or are being used for military purposes.

It is estimated that over 2.4 million children are out of school in Syria, and the percentage is higher among displaced children, as 54 percent of school non-attenders live in displacement camps.

Students at the al-Mumayazoon private school in Syria (school’s official account on Facebook)

Students at the al-Mumayazoon private school in Syria (school’s official account on Facebook)

 

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