Conflict and Justice in Syria: The Paradoxical Role of Education

by

Nov 30, 2023

The following segment is from a forthcoming working paper from EPP researcher, Roua Al Taweel

Positioned within the nexus of conflict and justice, education assumes a dual nature- functioning both as a weapon of conflict and as a beacon of hope for reconstructing fractured communities and tending to wounds brought about by the conflict.

EDUCATION AS A SPACE FOR CONFLICT, AND A CONFLICT-INDUCED SOCIOECONOMIC INJUSTICE: 

The emergence of schools as a space for conflict, both symbolically and physically, in Syria can be traced back to the period of the French Mandate and the strategic utilisation of Catholic missionary schools in entrenching its control in the Levant.[1] Inheriting colonial legacies, the initial Pan-Arab liberation project was eventually appropriated to consolidate security state and authoritarian rule, notably under the enduring Baath regime.

Articles 21 and 23 of Syria’s 1973 constitution identified the purpose of education as ‘creating a socialist nationalist Arab generation’ and took that as ‘the basis for building the unified Arab society […] and achieve the higher ideals of the Arab nation’.[2] While the constitution has changed in 2012[3], there is a doubt about meaningful efforts to alter four decades of an educational system tailored to the Baathist’s indoctrination, foregrounding Arabism, and loyalty to the party and its leadership. 

Similarly, albeit to different extent, in areas under de facto authorities today, educational institutions are shaped by the authority’s political agenda. [4]  While HTS-affiliated Salvation government (SSG) and the Interim government (SIG) impose regulations rooted in variation of Islamic interpretations, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) offers relatively more progressive stances. However, none of which stand as free of ideological indoctrination in practice, especially considering the inter-groups rivalry and sense of existential threat and insecurity.[5] Hence, Syria’s educational landscape, both prior to and following the 2011 uprising, has been inadvertently reinforcing divisive boundaries along lines of ethnicity, gender, religion and political affiliations, perpetrating cultural violence which drive and validate both structural and direct violence.[6]

In addition to the ‘partisa(n)ation’ of education, the classroom environment and structure hinder the positive potential for education. The culture remains one of ‘recitation and dictation underpinned by authoritarian, transmissional, and knowledge-testing practices’ that lacks ‘basic, yet, fundamental pedagogical understanding of the importance of meaningful [interactive] classroom practices’.[7] Doing so leads to curbing critical thinking and different viewpoints and forms of expressions. Furthermore, crowded classrooms, and lack of resources and equipment have only exacerbated during conflict, with some areas disproportionally more affected than others, due to successive humanitarian crises, scarce resources, and security concerns.[8]  

Considering the complexity of the aforementioned issues, Syrians are generally stuck between politicised and substandard education, or no education at all. Indeed, half of the school-aged children (~2.4 million between 5-17 years old) are out of school with one of three schools are no longer used for educational purposes due to being destroyed, damaged or repurposed as military bases or shelters.[9]  

Deprivation of education amplifies existing vulnerabilities and create new ones. Children forced out of education to engage in labour to help their families expose them to exploitation and intergenerational cycles of socioeconomic disadvantage.[10] For girls, the denial of education could lead to a series of gender-based discriminatory practices, including child marriage and marginalisation in economic activities.[11] Economic dependency in turn may render them more susceptible to trafficking, exploitation and domestic and political violence. 

Crucially, in matters of justice, lack of education can significantly disadvantage victims of human rights violations. Those with limited literacy may lack the necessary legal awareness regarding their rights and the necessary procedures to assert them.[12]Furthermore, when required, their ability to present coherent and logical structured testimonies may be compromised, thus undermining their credibility. This is particularly the case where the justice mechanisms fail to incorporate trauma-informed and intersectional approaches, along with a comprehensive perspective on rights that bridge civil and political rights on one hand, and social, cultural, and economic rights on the other.[13]

Recognising education as both an instrument for conflict and violence, as well as a source of socioeconomic injustice that intersect and generate other injustices, is imperative for the design and execution of programmatic measures aimed at fostering peacebuilding and facilitating mechanisms of justice. 

This segment was a working paper review by Roua Al Taweel


[1] Jennifer M. Dueck, ‘Educational Conquest: Schools as a Sphere of Politics in French Mandate Syria, 1936-1946’ (2006) 20 French History 442.

[2] Syria: Constitution 1973 <https://aceproject.org/ero-en/regions/mideast/SY/syria-constitution-1973/view> accessed 29 November 2023. 

[3] Syria: Constitution 2012 < https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Syria_2012.pdf?lang=en  accessed 29 November 2023.

[4] Ola Rifai, Education and Flags: Seminal for Winning the Hearts and Minds of Syria’s new Generation? (Open Democracy 2014) < Education and flags: seminal for winning the hearts and minds of Syria’s new generation? | openDemocracy>; Samar Qatrib and Hadya Yahia, ‘Curriculum v. Ideology: the War in the Classroom’ (Syria Deeply, the New Humanitarian 2016) <https://deeply.thenewhumanitarian.org/syria/about>; Hosam al-Jablawi, Syria’s Conflicting Powers Develop Separate Education Curriculums (Atlantic Council 2015) <Syria’s Conflicting Powers Develop Separate Education Curriculums – Atlantic Council>; Aamer Almustafa, Education System in Northwestern Syria: A Long Road Ahead (The Tahrir Institute 2023) <Education System in Northwestern Syria: A Long Road Ahead – The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (timep.org)> accessed 29 November 2023.

[5] Benoite Martin, ‘Politics of Education in Northeast Syria-Complexities and Criticisms’ (2023) The Education and Development Forum UKFIET < https://www.ukfiet.org/2023/politics-of-education-in-northeast-syria-complexities-and-criticisms/>; Hosam al-Jablawi, ‘Syria’s Conflicting Powers Develop Separate Education Curriculums’ (2015) Atlantic Council <Syria’s Conflicting Powers Develop Separate Education Curriculums – Atlantic Council> accessed 29 November 2023.

[6] Johan Galtung, ‘Peace, Positive and Negative’ in Christie (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology (Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2011)

[7] Taha Rajab, ‘A Socio-Cultural Study of Pedagogical Practices inside Syrian EFL Classrooms’ (2015) 3 International Journal of Society 110.

[8] Every Day Counts: The social, economic and psychological costs and resulting risks of not investing in the education system in Syria (UNICEF 2022).

[9] The situation of Children in Syria: After more than a decade of conflict, children continue to pay the heaviest price (UNICEF 2022) https://www.unicef.org/syria/situation-children-syria> accessed 29 November 2023. 

[10] National Study on Worst Forms of Child Labour in Syria (ILO Regional Office for Arab States and UNICEF Syria 2012); Small Hands, Heavy Burden: How the Syria Conflict is Driving More Children into the Workforce (Save the Children and UNICEF 2015).

[11] ‘I Used to Love School’: The Gendered Impacts of Attacks on Education in Syria (Save the Children 2022) <https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/document/i-used-to-love-school-the-gendered-impacts-of-attacks-on-education-in-syria/> accessed 29 November 2023.

[12] Oula Ramadan and Nora Ababneh, In Search for Justice: Syrian Women’s Narratives and Gender-Based Violence (Badael 2022) < In_search_for_Justice_798aa6f637.pdf (badael.org)> accessed 06 September 2023.

[13] ibid.