Soft Power and Indoctrination War - The Decline of the Ba’ath Grip on the Educational System in Syria to Iran and Russia

In authoritarian regimes across the world, state apparatus comprises two primary pillars they rely upon to cement their dominance upon the nation they oppress. One state repression apparatus and second state ideological apparatus. 

Based on these elements, authoritarian states forcibly control and reject progressive plurality and diversity, including the formulation of the national educational policy and curriculum. As a result, the state renders education a pathway to consolidate the state propaganda and ideology similar to the colonizing power, instead of the local indigenous original historical identity and custom.

In Syria, the Ba’ath party, ever since taking over Syria’s rule in 1963, the education development and reproduction in the country have dramatically transformed. The ideological transplantation and what the generations know about history, language, geography, philosophy, and other silences was revisited, according to Mohesen Hallom, a 58-years old historian and humanity science teacher who spent 18 years teaching in Damascus’ schools, and now resides in Idlib rural.

“Instead of following the worldwide scientific advancement and reflecting the entwined multi-ethnic and religiously diverse. The ruling party pursuit an explicit systemic Ba’athist nationalist sentiment spreading systemically Syrians youngsters

Mohesen Hallom, a 58-years old historian and humanity science teacher

Organized Distortion

Syria’s identity is reflected through its ethnic, religious diversity, habits and tradition, history occurrences, and reality. If the curriculums do not show and teach students about that, then their identity is tarnished and is being erased.

“It is about the Christians, Arab, Druze, Kurds, Jewish, and many things related to their cultures, customs, and traditions. Yet, the Ba’ath did erase a lot of that, on the expense of its project.” Hallom said

The distortion manifests through the establishment of “The Nationalist Socialist Education” as a mandatory subject which contains hardcore socialist Baathist modules teaching emancipation and nationalism induced by Hafez Assad and Ba’ath ideology and outlook. 

The Ba’th leadership, both the father and the son, wielded their ideological power and perpetuated its philosophy in every aspect of the youth’s educational life. To implement this indoctrination, the party’s executive apparatus created a socialist youth sub-parties of the mother Ba’ath called “Revolutionary Youths Union” and “The Syrian Pioneers Organization “whose members are mainly led by the party’s loyalist amid mobilizing youth power (school students). It also conducts and organizes annual military training boot camps and university training camps as well, to ideologically embed the conception of Ba’ath solo leadership and Assadism, and renew their pledge of ultimate obedience to the leadership and be loyal citizens in the future.

“Major ramification of the indoctrinated, have been joining of many of those youth to the regime’s paramilitary forces, throughout the war,” the historian explains

Males and females do equally partake, although with a majority of men. “It is an ideological Bootcamp. It teaches Syrians youth about the historical struggle of Al-Baath and its leaders to unite the Arab nation and bring it together.” He notes

One of the underlining distorting acts, the teacher explains is that the “the Syrian’s educational system is written to depicts the Ba’ath as the sole protector and defender of nationalist Arab identity and union,”

“Children at schools have been learning distorted history for decades, yet now it will be manipulated and distorted even more as Iran and Russian take over.” The historian notes.

The Eradication of the Syrian identity by Assad allies

An inherited problem in Syria’s school classes is that they are always packed—like a military Boot Camps—with 50 students in each class, low equipped, hostile administrations that abuses students and tarnish their creativity, Suha Al-Bahboh, a school teacher and manager in north-Syria explains (she has been a practitioner for over than 15 years between Hama and Aleppo and currently in Idlib rural).

“The teaching methodology has also been inadequate, unpractical in comparison to the modernized educational systems adopted worldwide,”

Students have to memories word by word the assigned coursework and final exams leaving zero space for student’s creativity or self-diligence, let alone the outdated knowledge quality of all sciences in general

Suha Al-Bahboh – A school teacher and manager in north Syria

Although the Russian-Iranian and Syrian regimes for a long time have had high ties and collaboration at all levels before the onset of the Syrian revolution 2011, yet this relation solidified afterward in various focal sectors. 

Suha explains that the domination race upon the educational regularity in Syria has been a battleground for the hegemonic powers of Syria allies’ authorities who resonate a sense of awareness of expanding their intellectual occupation in Syria eradicating the Syrian Arab identity favoring theirs.

Both regimes are tirelessly endeavoring to incorporate a grassroots educational reform and transferring the old system that praises solely the Ba’ath rule. Though Iran is transplanting multi-layered religious and cultural traditions.

“Through benevolent initiative at mosques, poor neighbors, namely where the regime pushed back rebel groups in Damascus and Aleppo. Many mosques and school were turned into religious hubs to spread Iran’s ideological rhetoric,” Suha said

On the long term, such initiative will indoctrinate more youth and use them in the future for their proxy lucrative business

Suha Al-Bahboh, a school teacher and manager in north-Syria

Iran’s policy

According to the historian, there is a systemic policy that is being implemented and pushed forwards by both Iran and Russia to expand their occupation to Syria’s intellectually, culturally, and historically. “Children and youth in general-who already lost a lot during the war- are their next target. The Iranian have been underway, less formally through spreading religious gathering across Syria since the beginning of the uprising which is growing up in many parts of Syria,” he said

In 2005, Iran successfully established the Iranian Culture Consultative Institution (ICCI) in Damascus in addition to its sub-branches in Aleppo and other provinces. The center managed to incorporate Persian in many Syrian universities such as Damascus and Aleppo in the literature language sector through its relation to the Syrian regime.

In 2011, Syria’s High Education Ministry formally acknowledged Al-Siyad Rakaia faculty as part of Syria’s educational entities. The faculty mainly teaches “Sharia” leading Iran’s incorporation of Iran’s in Syrian society into a deeper level.  

According to Harmon Centre for Research and Policy Studies until the end of 2019, around 500 Iranian religious centers were opened across Syria. 

“Iran has an old entrenched relationship with the regime before the uprising, their endeavors to spread cross-socialist and radical religious and ethnic oriented ideology,”

The center indicates that there are nearly forty Iranian schools in Damascus only. These schools have official acknowledgement by the Syrian Ministry of Endowments and the Ministry of Education.

The soft power campaign influenced opening sub-branches of Iran based universities in Syria, such as Azad’Hi in 2018, beside Al-Farabi universities in 2007 and Al-Moustafa university in 2009.

Besides teaching the religious ideology, these centers have been attracting, according to locals in eastern Syria, youth to travel to Iran and continue their education and come back to Syria.  

Those universities attract many students as they give financial incentives and scholarships with the mother-university back in Iran. For instance, the Deir-Ezzor ICCI sub-branch launched fully funded scholarships for locals to pursue their high-education in the Islamic country.

The historian asserts that these steps will cumulatively not only undermine Syrian’s local identity and install Iran’s alien one but also mobilize more human support for their future plans.

“Iran wants to generate human support for its own agenda in Syria which has always been its aim. The regime’s open doors accelerate this ideological transplantation and indoctrination, which will feed in more cross-ethnic conflicts in the region undoubtedly,” he added

Iranian and Russian Rivalry 

Amid long term occupation of Syria and parallel to their military offensives, Damascus’s allies have been working to intervene in Syria’s educational curriculum itself, not launching separate entities only.

The systemic interference by Iran made a breakthrough in late January 2020, when the Syrian Ministers of Education and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding. 

According to the agreement, the Iran ministry of education will be responsible for conducting the school’s development and maintenance as well as revising and developing the national curriculum at all levels, which will be printed in Iran as well. Furthermore, the Iranian regime will have broader power to amend and collaborate in varied sectors in the minister’s internal educational policy, which includes introducing the Persian language to the Syrian scholarly discipline.

Besides, the Iranian will be supervising and providing capacity building programs to the teachers and lecturers in Iran amid to capacitance with the needed ‘modern’ acquaintance. 

The Iranian project covers the educational system holistically including youth, disabled persons, internet and technology, child literature, cinema, painting, and theater.

D. Khaula Al Hadid, a Psychological and Social Science Researcher based in Abu-Dhabi, explains that; there are two primary pillars in the Iranian intervention in the educational sector in Syria. It first aims to insert a religiously Persian oriented philosophy of the Iranian Islamic state framework in the Syrian curriculum, culture, and custom as well. Secondly, it complicity endeavors to dismantle the Syrian grassroots religiously moderate culture and undermine the culture of tolerant to an utterly volatile generation. 

Therefore, Iran has been investing millions of US dollars establishing, in addition to their privately-owned religious centers, but to prevail and change the education and subvert and deviate the Syrian identity on the long term

D. Khaula Al Hadid, a Psychological and Social Science Researcher

While Iran is trying to shore up its radical ideological change to Syrian identity, Russia, however, has been less hastily invested in a military aspect and directing Russian-loyal rhetoric in Syria amongst the Christina Syrian segment.

Russian soft power dominance

Hadidi explains that Russian opened over the past years their institutions across many cities- in Syria parallel to the military intervention- a Christian- orthodox Russian oriented propaganda in the Christina-schools. “Russian proxy is instilling a misleading historical fact about Syria underpinning Russian role, coexistence and entwined historical interplay with the Syrian-Christian.

The researcher explains that these institutions reflect a benevolent image of the Russian intervention and their decisive role in Syria to defeat the Syrian’ revolution. They are alienating a large segment of the population and creating cross-religious hostility between Christians and Muslims.

“They are justifying their existence and benevolence to the Syrians. The production of this misguided generation who denies the Syrian atrocity relates peace and prosperity in Syria to Russia would only increase the gap between Syrians and surge the religion division,”

The hazardous ramification to this policy will manifest in Syrian’s Christian coming generations who will be as Hadidi asserts foreign to their fellow citizens. 

The implications of “labeling the Syrian revolution and its supporters with ethnic-radical connections will jeopardize the social contract or what has left of it,” she said

The Russian aims to introduce themselves as the saviors of  minorities in Syria in long-term investment to guarantee their foothold. 

On the same token, Russian-Syrian agreements were signed, announcing the introduction of Russian language faculties in Latakia, Homs, parallel to large numbers of private schools that started teaching Russian. 

In 2018, a similar agreement was signed between both countries’ Ministries of Defense that allow Syrian nationals to attend ‘military Bootcamp’ fully funded and trained following the national Russian military school curriculums. 

Although Russian formal interference in the Syrian war did not come to the public until late 2015, however, its soft power plans were already underway. A major announcement introduced the Russian language as an optional language in Syria’s schools in 2014. This was followed by an increasing medium of scholarships to Syrian students introduced by the Russian in Syria. 

Enlarging Language Center vision

For this sake, many privately owned institutions that teach the Russian language in many provinces across Syria are increasingly getting licenses to introduce the Russian language. 

In a recent manifestation of this contestation, Damascus announced a 500 scholarships to Russia for both undergraduate and graduate studies in Russian next year. This has led to a significant surge of turnout registrations to study Russian across the country’s private language institutes.

This move the researcher describes, taking advantage of Syria’s weakness now by taking advantage of the military leverage they have.

Both Iran and Russia are pushing Syrians to learn their language to increase their opportunities to work in affiliated businesses they will launch in the future. “It is an educational- economical interconnected plan to make Syrian reliant on their power and expose to their influence and exploitation which is already growing,” she said women a collateral cost weapons proliferation amongst locals in North Syria

These enterprises aim to overrule Syrians’ welfare one creating a brainwashed affiliated community to Assad’s allies and their alien agenda, rather than Syrians’ interest, identity or future prosperity.

D. Khaula Al Hadid, a Psychological and Social Science Researcher