What prevents imposition of sanctions on National Union of Syrian Students?

Medical students during a silent sit-in at their faculty, holding flowers and demanding the release of their detained colleagues - April 19, 2011 (YouTube/obaybol)

Medical students during a silent sit-in at their faculty, holding flowers and demanding the release of their detained colleagues - April 19, 2011 (YouTube/obaybol)


Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud

The National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS) has committed numerous violations against university students since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, ranging from suppressing student protests against the Syrian regime to detaining and torturing them.

More than 13 years after the Syrian revolution, the union has not faced European or American sanctions, with US sanctions limited to its former president, Mohamad Ammar Saati, despite numerous testimonies from students who have experienced “organized” violations by union members, as documented by several investigations and studies.

Despite the union’s obstruction of the educational process and its involvement in deciding the academic fate of hundreds of students, it continues to be invited to attend international conferences and student organizations, promoting its ability to accommodate and represent all segments of society.

The latest of these invitations is the preparation of the National Union of Syrian Students to participate with a Syrian sports delegation in the Paris 2024 Olympics, led by Omar al-Aroub, who is accused of committing crimes during his work in the National Union of Syrian Students. He held the position of a member of the leadership branch of the union in Aleppo city between 2000 and 2010, then president of the branch, and a member of the executive office of the union, as head of the National and Voluntary Work Bureau until 2019.

The European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom impose political and economic sanctions on prominent Syrian officials involved in military and security operations since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, and on state agencies and institutions such as ministries, the central bank, and others, for their roles in funding repression and military operations.

What obstacles stand in the way of sanctioning the National Union of Syrian Students? And what role do investigations and studies conducted by Syrian research centers and civil society organizations play in documenting the violations and clarifying the roles of the union?

The National Union of Syrian Students identifies itself through its official website as “a popular organization comprising students from Syrian public and private universities, higher institutes, and technical institutes. It has branches inside and outside Syria and was officially founded on April 23, 1966.”

Since its founding in 1966, the union has been known as an entity managed by the leadership of the Arab Socialist Baath Party (the ruling party in Syria), and the party controls organizations and unions in the country. Its role evolved after 2011 to engage in security activities to suppress student demonstrations and monitor the civil student movement, exploiting the presence of its representatives in all colleges and universities across Syria.

Investigations play their role

Syrian organizations, research centers, and other entities have documented the union’s violations through several studies and researches, the latest of which was an investigation conducted by the Syrian British Consortium on torture crimes and detentions carried out by the National Union of Syrian Students between 2011 and 2013, based on in-depth interviews with 17 male and three female witnesses, including former students, members of the teaching staff, and members of the union itself.

According to the investigation, the union participated in repression operations and arbitrary detentions based on “suspicion of participating in anti-regime activities,” and practiced torture on students through beatings, electric shocks, verbal and psychological abuse, and sexual and sectarian-based violations.

The investigation relied on direct testimonies and the experiences of the witnesses themselves, not providing a complete picture of the committed crimes, as the union cooperated with Syrian security agencies, and its crimes were part of a wider repression campaign launched by the Syrian regime.

These accusations are considered crimes against humanity, pursuant to Articles “7” and “8” of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Ibrahim al-Olabi, a lawyer at the Guernica 37 organization specialized in international law, told Enab Baladi that investigations, reports, studies, and researches documenting violations against an institution or entity are very important and play a role in relying on them to impose sanctions on an entity or individual.


Most sanctions require an issued order that proves the violation publicly, and the stronger and more in-depth these legal and human rights investigations and studies are into the heart of the violations, the more they are used to impose sanctions.

Ibrahim al-Olabi, Lawyer at the Guernica 37 organization


Legal and political obstacles

To impose sanctions on the union, many obstacles can be faced, primarily legal ones, according to lawyer Ibrahim al-Olabi, as it is essential to have sufficient evidence against the institution to be sanctioned, whether it is the union or others. Additionally, there are also political obstacles, as there needs to be a political will to impose sanctions on the National Union of Syrian Students or any other entity. Any imposed sanctions involve participatory decisions based on legal grounds to impose them.

There are legal approaches that civil society organizations have started working on to prevent the union from participating in the Paris 2024 Olympics and entering France or joining other events, as it has participated in violations, or against any institution that participated in violations in Syria, according to al-Olabi.

One of the approaches being worked on is submitting evidence to the concerned parties and delivering it to political entities. A human rights campaign focusing on this has started, al-Olabi told Enab Baladi.

What about Washington?

The lack of sanctions on the National Union of Syrian Students despite its violations was not difficult in Washington. A proposal can be submitted to the US Congress to impose sanctions on the union, especially given the good relationship that the American Coalition for Syria has with the US Department of the Treasury and the US Department of State, according to Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, Director of Political Planning at the American Coalition for Syria, speaking to Enab Baladi.

To start the process of demanding sanctions on the union, the American Coalition needs documentary material that legally proves the union’s involvement in these activities. The Syrian-American lobby has previously pushed for sanctions on individuals, war criminals, drug traffickers, and other entities and individuals by providing the necessary documents and evidence.

Ghanem added that after submitting the documents to demand sanctions on the National Union of Syrian Students, the follow-up steps are up to the Syrian-American organizations based in Washington.

From Ghanem’s perspective, there are numerous priorities and entities that are more important to impose sanctions on, but this does not diminish the significant role of “crime” committed by union members against university students. This requires cooperation between Syrian civil society organizations documenting the violation and organizations in Washington.

A historical overview

In 1966, the National Union of Syrian Students was established by Legislative Decree No. 130 and became “the sole representative of university students in Syria.” It continued to operate under the umbrella of the Baath Party until the Syrian regime president, Bashar al-Assad, issued a law granting the union financial and administrative independence in January of last year.

The National Union of Syrian Students has supervised “university training camps” for students for years until the decision to dissolve the training camp centers in 2015, alongside accusations of recruiting students for the benefit of security agencies.

In 2020, the US Department of the Treasury imposed new sanctions on military and party figures associated with the Syrian regime, including the then-president of the union, Mohamad Ammar Saati, who led an organization “that facilitated the recruitment of university students for militias supported by al-Assad.”

In the same year, Saati was replaced by Darin Suleiman, who claimed to be working on holding accountable anyone the union verified was involved in violations against students.

Suleiman chaired the union’s executive office and was a member of the small group of the Syrian regime’s delegation to the constitutional committee in 2019.


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