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Moscow’s Soft Power Spread in Syria

While the Russian military presence in Syria has long been assured, it is being joined by Russian attempts to spread language and culture writes Al-Jazeera
Moscow’s Soft Power Spread in Syria

As the new school year in Syria approaches, Raeda Tahan, 18, is plagued by worries about what she will study at Damascus University after obtaining her secondary degree. She is waiting for the acceptance rates to be announced before she chooses between Russian and English language studies in the literature department.

She has wanted to study the Russian language in a private academy for more than a year, believing in the importance of learning the language of Syria’s number-one ally and the major role that Russian culture will play for Syrians in the coming years.

A option to study Russian was established in the literature department of Damascus University four years ago, which was neither the first nor the last chapter of the Russian “cultural invasion” of Syria. Not only did Russia intervene militarily on behalf of the Syrian regime three years ago, but it has also directed its attention toward that which might give it a more long-lasting influence in Syrian society.

The most recent of these Russian attempts to penetrate Syrian society was the announced opening of the first Russian school in the Middle East in Damascus, scheduled for next month. Russian media stated last week that, “one of the most important developments in Russian-Syrian humanitarian cooperation is in the field of education, with the construction of a Russian school under the supervision of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in Russia, that will follow Russian curriculums translated into English.”

According to Russian media, this comes as part of the growing interest of Syrians in Russian higher education, and the increasing popularity of the Russian language in Syria, with about 15,000 people now learning it in various areas.

For three years, the Syrian Education Ministry has included the Russian language in its curriculum as a second foreign language alongside English, and as an alternative to French, which has a deep history in Syrian schools. According to statements by ministry officials to Syrian media, the number of schools in which Russian is studied reached 170 last year, distributed across most Syrian cities, using about 100 teachers from Syria who have mastered the language. The number is expected to rise in the coming school year, which begins at the start of September.

The Syrian Higher Education Ministry also opened a Russian center at Damascus University to encourage cooperation between Russia and Syria and the teaching of Russian to Syrian students.

In addition, many private language centers and academies in various cities, such as Damascus, Homs, Latakia, and Tartous, have begun to teach Russian with local and Russian teachers.

A retired teacher from the sociology department in Damascus, Abdul Hakim M., believes that all of the above are indications of Russia’s growing long term interest in Syria in various fields — not just with regards to a military presence.

According to the teacher, who asked not to have his full name given, Russia is trying to use so-called “soft power” in Syria, whereby it applies pressure using various tools, which don’t include coercion and violence, in order to draw a larger number of Syrians to its side and to present itself as the regime’s biggest ally both in war and peace.

He believes that both sides are trying to trade benefits on various economic, political and cultural levels. The survival of the Syrian regime is linked to Russia’s attempts to impose itself as an international player and equal to other great powers.

Ahmed Meftah, 45, who teaches Russian at a private academy in Damascus, has a different opinion. He does not think that Russia has intervened directly to impose its language in Syria, but that Syrians generally have started to love the language of their country’s ally, and have independently decided to learn it, especially with the growing opportunities and university scholarships in Russia.

Meftah told Al Jazeera Net that this demand provided him, a graduate of a Russian engineering school, with the ability to find work that pays a decent income. Despite the difficulty of teaching the language to non-native speakers, the passion he finds in the students makes this task easier, he says.


This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.

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