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Language as a Battleground: Asma al-Assad’s Insight on Cultural Sovereignty Amidst Foreign Influences

Russia, Iran compete for influence through the leaching of their respective languages in Syrian schools, Asharq al-Awsat says
Language as a Battleground: Asma al-Assad’s Insight on Cultural Sovereignty Amidst Foreign Influences

During her visit to the University of Foreign Studies in Beijing alongside the Syrian President in late summer 2023, Asma al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria, addressed students of Arab studies with a compelling message about the impact of language on national consciousness and decision-making. She articulated that controlling a society’s language is a direct path to influencing its consciousness, which in turn can lead to the erosion of societal structures and the obliteration of cultural identity.

This statement was particularly poignant against the backdrop of Russia’s nine-year mandate for the incorporation of the Russian language into the curricula of Syrian government schools. This move is part of a broader strategic competition with Iran for cultural and educational influence in Syria, aiming to establish a supportive societal environment that complements their military endeavors amidst the declining state of education, including the instruction of Arabic.


Russian Influence in Syrian Education

Despite Iran’s early attempts to introduce Persian education in Syria, Russia has effectively dominated the educational landscape since its military intervention in 2015. The Russian language has been introduced as an optional subject alongside English and French in the foundational stages of education. From an experimental start with 400 students in the Sahel region in 2015, the program expanded to 217 schools across 12 governorates under government control, benefiting over 35,000 students and employing 200 teachers by the end of its seventh year, as reported by the Syrian government.


Iran’s Educational Outreach

Following Russia’s lead, Iran has sought to embed Persian studies within Syrian government education systems under a bilateral agreement aimed at exchanging expertise and renovating schools. By 2021, Persian education was introduced in schools refurbished and reopened by Tehran, marking Iran’s tangible imprint on Syria’s educational sector. The last five years have seen the establishment of Persian teaching centers in major universities such as Damascus and Al-Baath University in Homs, along with the Syrian Military College. These efforts are complemented by branches of Iranian universities like “Tarbiyya Mudarres”, “Al-Mustafa”, “Al-Farabi”, and “Azad Islami” University, extending Iran’s educational influence into the Deir ez-Zor Governorate, an area of significant Iranian socio-political interest.


Post-ISIS Syria

In the aftermath of ISIS’s expulsion from Deir ez-Zor, Al-Mayadeen, and Al-Bukamal since 2018, these cities have seen the establishment of numerous educational and cultural institutions aimed at promoting Persian language and Iranian religious thought. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has highlighted the deteriorating educational system in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, exacerbated by low salaries for teachers and widespread corruption, as key factors enabling Tehran’s influence in the education sector. This situation has led to a resurgence of Iranian educational and cultural centers, raising concerns over their impact on the youth in the region.

Iran’s strategy appears to leverage the prevailing poverty and crisis by offering financial assistance, meals, and vocational training to attract young Syrians. These efforts include the establishment of schools and language centers specifically for children and teenagers, alongside vocational training in various fields. Additionally, Iran is reported to engage in the cultural and religious indoctrination of the youth, aiming to cultivate a supportive local environment that aligns with its interests.

This comprehensive approach by Iran in Deir ez-Zor and surrounding areas reflects a broader attempt to assert its influence through educational and cultural means. By providing essential services and education, Tehran seeks to establish a foothold in the region, potentially serving its strategic interests by fostering a generation that may be more sympathetic to its cultural and political objectives.


Balancing education and influence

In the war-torn city of Deir ez-Zor, educational endeavors intertwine with cultural influences, as Iran extends its reach through a blend of academic courses, financial aid, and religious activities. Hazem, a 17-year-old resident, represents a cohort of students whose education was disrupted by conflict but now finds new opportunities through the Iranian Cultural Center. Here, alongside English and Persian language courses, students engage in vocational training ranging from electrical appliance maintenance and blacksmithing for males to fine arts, cooking, and sewing for females. Despite the modest monthly grant of 30,000 Syrian pounds (less than 3 dollars), the allure of free education is significant for Hazem and approximately 130 other students who recently obtained their preparatory certificates.

Beyond vocational skills, these centers also play a pivotal role in promoting Iranian culture and Shiite religious practices, often in cooperation with organizations linked to Syria’s ruling Baath Party. Activities designed to integrate schoolchildren and university students into the cultural and religious fabric of Iran include seminars, competitions, and religious celebrations.


The Complex Web of Education and Aid

The strategy deployed by Iranian centers in Deir ez-Zor taps into the vulnerabilities created by poverty, offering educational services alongside aid as a means to gain a foothold in the region. This approach has elicited mixed reactions from the local population. While some, like Muhammad from Al-Mawhasan, acknowledge the pragmatic acceptance of Iranian education for the sake of aid, there remains a deep-seated concern about the potential for cultural indoctrination.

However, the effectiveness of Iran’s cultural penetration faces skepticism, particularly in an area where the historical and social fabric may resist Persian influences. The predominantly Sunni Arab population of Deir ez-Zor harbors a historical aversion to Persian culture, suggesting a challenging environment for Iran to establish a lasting cultural and religious influence. This situation is further complicated by Russia’s competing efforts to assert its educational and cultural presence, exemplified by a significant aid shipment to Deir ez-Zor’s teachers at the start of the school year, aimed at bolstering Russian language education.


Education as a Frontline in Geopolitical Influence

The narratives emerging from Deir ez-Zor highlight a critical aspect of the broader geopolitical struggle in Syria, where education becomes a frontline for influence. The involvement of Iran and Russia in the region’s educational landscape is emblematic of their broader strategic goals, blending soft power initiatives with military and political ambitions. As these international powers vie for influence through the provision of education and aid, the long-term implications for the cultural identity and political allegiances of Syria’s younger generations remain uncertain, set against a backdrop of ongoing conflict and societal upheaval.

In Deir ez-Zor, a city profoundly affected by the conflict in Syria, the influence of Iranian cultural centers is becoming increasingly visible, with a focus on both educational and religious activities. Seventeen-year-old Hazem, who recently completed his preparatory education, highlights the dual nature of these centers. They offer courses in English and Persian languages, vocational training in electrical appliance maintenance and blacksmithing for men, and fine arts, cooking, and sewing for women. The monthly financial support provided by these centers, though modest, underscores the appeal of free education amidst economic hardship. Concurrently, these centers engage in religious and cultural seminars, drawing participants into the broader sphere of Iranian cultural and religious influence.

This educational outreach by Iran, however, intersects with broader geopolitical dynamics and local apprehensions. Cooperation between Iranian cultural centers and organizations linked to the ruling Baath Party aims to embed young Syrians deeper into a cultural milieu aligned with Iranian interests, including participation in Shiite religious events. This strategy has raised concerns among local Arab tribes in Deir ez-Zor, wary of Iran’s educational influence being a conduit for deeper ideological indoctrination under the guise of alleviating poverty.

Contrastingly, Russia’s educational initiatives in Syria, marked by the distribution of language teaching materials and food aid to teachers in Deir ez-Zor, reflect a different model of influence. Unlike Iran’s experience, which faced setbacks such as the closure of Sharia schools on the Syrian coast after local pushback and regulatory interventions, Russia’s approach has found relative acceptance, particularly in regions with a significant Russian military presence. The utility of the Russian language for educational and professional opportunities, especially in areas with economic ties to Russia, underscores a pragmatic dimension to its cultural penetration.

These dynamics illustrate the complex interplay of external influences in Syria, where educational and cultural initiatives are intertwined with broader strategic interests. While Iran and Russia deploy distinct strategies to embed their influence, the underlying concern among Syrians, as articulated by Asma al-Assad, revolves around the preservation of cultural and national identity amidst these foreign interventions. The varying responses to these influences, from cautious acceptance to outright resistance, reflect the broader challenges of navigating external pressures within the struggle to maintain Syria’s sovereign cultural and educational landscape.


This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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