Syrian Students Union contributes in arresting students but still representing them in International forums
Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad
After years of contributing to the suppression of student protests and the transformation of educational buildings into security branches, the arm of the Baath Party in Syrian universities returned to the forefront to appear in an international forum to “represent” thousands of students after having tied them up and muzzled them over the past decades.
Despite its involvement in obstructing the educational process and participating in the decision to end university life for hundreds of students, the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS), represented in the person of its chairperson, Dareen Suleiman, attended the Transforming Education Summit held in New York from 16 to 19 last September following the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
The arm of the Baath Party and the power’s “safety valve”
The National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS) has represented the Baath Party in Syrian universities since its founding in 1963.
This is what had emerged in the various political and security phases that Syria had gone through, and has continued until these moments when NUSS’ turned into a radio station to transmit the achievements and movements of the Baath Party and its affiliated members.
Factors affirming the union’s association with the party are frequent, despite its current chairperson, Dareen Suleiman, attempting to change this character and conveying an image of NUSS as “the legitimate representative of all Syrian students with different political and party affiliations.”
On top of these factors, a member of the Baath Party’s regional leadership who continued to assert their full loyalty to the party in all their movements and speeches, Amar Saati, has held the position of the chairperson to the union for about 17 years.
As a member of the “partisan group,” Saati participates in all student union activities, while there are no representatives of other parties, according to Yaman Zabad, an assistant researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies who is interested in the civil movement before the Syrian revolution.
Speaking to Enab Baladi, Zabad added that the party had offices in all Syrian universities, but the rest of the parties were absent from the scene. Dareen Suleiman’s speech was seen as an attempt to “burnish the image of the union,” in particular, and to confirm the regime’s narrative about the existence of party pluralism in its institutions in general.
The Syrian regime employed NUSS as a “safety valve” that ensured that any anti-regime movement was prohibited, even if the movement was a service one, according to what Zabad said, noting that the role of the union was then limited to writing reports about students showing any opinion contrary to the regime’s and controlling university students to prevent any activity or movement outside the Baath framework.
|The National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS): A popular organization that includes students of the Syrian public and private universities and higher and technical institutes. It has branches inside and outside Syria. The union was officially established on 23 April 1963.
Behind the scenes
Prior to the Syrian revolution, the union participated in organizing various student activities that served the interest of the Syrian regime by working on ideologizing university students into embracing the intellectual values of the Baath Party.
For years, the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS) has been overseeing student “university training camps” until the decision to dissolve the training centers running the camps was taken in 2015, along with being accused of recruiting students for the security services.
NUSS was also a part of the university education process in Syria under a legal umbrella drawn up by the Law of Regulating Universities issued in 2006.
The law mandated the presence of NUSS representatives at various levels of university administration, most notably the Higher Education Council, which includes the union’s chairperson together with a representative proposed annually by the union’s executive office. The associate researcher Zabad considered this to be “healthy and natural,” explaining that the union’s participation as a representative of students by voting on decisions related to their fate was part of its role in the event that the union was not a partner in the violations committed against them.
The Syrian regime sought to polish its “authoritarian” image by claiming the existence of “free” space for civil society organizations in Syria, using NUSS and other union institutions in Syria, which attributed an intelligence-like role to the union at the time, Zabad said.
From the Damascus University campus, the student Batool (a pseudonym for security reasons), 31, was arrested at the gate of an examination hall, where her colleague at the Faculty of Mass Communication and a member of the union awaited her.
The girl was forced to hand over her university student card after she was detained at NUSS’ office at the Faculty of Pharmacy and to open her personal Facebook account to verify the “charge” of participating in the popular movement on social media, according to what she told Enab Baladi via a phone call.
Batool was not the union’s only victim at the time; student Mona Burhan of the same university was arrested by a NUSS member who was a medical school student.
During an interview with Enab Baladi via a phone call, Mona labeled the union a “mini-security branch” within Syrian universities.
In response to accusing the union of practicing Tashbih on students, the chairperson of the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS), Dareen Suleiman, said that the country is experiencing an “emergency security situation that imposes measures to protect universities.”
Suleiman’s justification was simply one of the pretexts used by the union to “legalize” the violations it was committing and to establish a representative authority for the regime within the universities.
An authority that has emerged with many NUSS-perpetrated violations and numerous decisions imposed by it, even on the deanship of universities.
During the early years of the Syrian revolution, reports circulated about the union’s arrest of Syrian students in their universities and the participation in their arrest and torture on campus, resulting in the death of many of them.
These stories formed part of the memory of the students who witnessed the arrest of their friends and evidence of the union’s role in violating the rights of students, including student Ayham Ghazoul, who was killed after being beaten by NUSS members.
“I have not completed my studies. I do not wish to start from scratch, to which they have returned me”. With these words, Mona Burhan justified to Enab Baladi the reason for not pursuing her studies after her arrest by the union and the issuance of an official decision to dismiss her.
Mona shared the same fate with most of the students of her class at the Faculty of Mass Communication, who numbered about 100, she said.
Mona was not beaten inside the branch, as one of the officers in Branch 227 said, “Do not beat them; they are educated people who will come out to expose us.” But she was beaten and insulted before being taken to the branch in the union’s office.
Mona was denied her dream of obtaining a media diploma certificate even after her departure from Syria after being denied a copy of her transcript or university student card, which was taken by a member of the union responsible for her arrest.
However, Batool was able to complete her studies at the University of Damascus after submitting a plea for clemency that forced her to enter the office of the NUSS’ chairperson at the time, Ammar Saati, something that the young woman considered more difficult than the moment she entered the branch.
“Armed” civil society
“My fellow students were responsible for my arrest,” said Batool without hiding her disappointment, despite the fact that many years have passed since her arrest at the university.
“I naively thought that it was impossible for media students to be supporters and partners of the regime,” she went on to explain why she was so disappointed that her arrest had been carried out by students in her college.
In turn, an associate researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Yaman Zabad, said that the regime had worked to arm civil society in Syria to shift the conflict from a struggle between the authority and society to one between the classes of society.
The Syrian regime has done so by granting the power to arrest, beat and, in some cases, kill students of the same scientific level to close associates of the Baath Party and members of the National Union of Syrian Students. This relocated torture and detention from security branches and military centers to universities and civil buildings and instilled a state of fear among students, according to Zabad.
The assistant researcher considered that the regime distorted the educational process and the image of civil society, which suddenly turned into an armed society.
The union says that it is the “legitimate representative” of all Syrian students. It continues to represent them in international forums, while thousands of Syrian students live outside the country, stripped of their rights to participate in such international forums or competitions.
The Syrian regime uses the presence of student and union organizations to polish its image in international forums and promote its ability to include and represent all segments of society.
While union institutions are responsible for preserving and protecting the rights of the people affiliated with them, the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS) has played a key role in violating the rights of the students it claims to represent, making it an “illegitimate” representative of Syrian students, according to assistant researcher Yaman Zabad.
The representation of the educational process requires that those responsible be free from the penalties for violations and war crimes.
However, Ammar Saati, the former NUSS chairperson for about 17 years straight, is one of the people on US sanctions lists, according to a statement issued by the US Treasury Department in August 2020.
The statement, a copy of which Enab Baladi has seen, stated that Saati “led an organization that facilitated the admission of university students into Assad-backed militias.”
Earlier, the re-sponsorship of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP Syria) in cooperation with the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS) on 12 July 2021, of the international Hult Prize competition, known as the Student Nobel, angered the students who faced various NUSS-perpetrated violations.
UNDP was criticized by many Syrian organizations, which considered cooperation as participation with the union in its violations, which prompted UNDP Syria to deny any formal or informal agreement with the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS).
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