Dismantling education in Syria’s Idlib

Pounded by the Syrian regime and Russian forces, Idlib faces a parallel assault from within, which will undermine its future long after the dust has settled: an all-out assault on its education sector. Its fallout will prove among the most difficult to reverse, leaving behind a generation largely deprived of basic education. A broad range of actors has helped fuel this process, even as ordinary Syrians brave life-threatening odds to invest in a better future.

From the conflict’s early stages, Idlib’s fragmented opposition has politicized education on multiple fronts. As protests escalated, some hardline actors treated the education sector itself as a symbol of the regime’s influence. They pushed for boycotting schools, purged teachers suspected of loyalism, and expunged segments of the curriculum related to the ruling family —but also entire portions dealing with Syrian history and religious studies. “I was on my way to school one day in 2013 and saw a crowd of children standing in front of an armed man at the schoolhouse,” said an elementary school teacher in southern Idlib. “The man was gesturing at a slogan written on the school’s wall: ‘No schooling until the president falls.’”

In some cases, armed groups went still further, treating educational infrastructure as regime assets to be destroyed, looted, or occupied. The same teacher added: “A few days later I returned to the school and I cried like a child. The doors and windows were broken and everything had been stolen: Computers, lab equipment, desks, everything.”

As opposition governance evolved and grew more sophisticated, residents noticed new forms of politicization—notably through two competing strands of Islamization. On one side, the Muslim Brotherhood worked to exert its influence via the Turkey-based opposition superstructure; on the other, more fundamentalist groups intervened directly at the grassroots level, adapting subjects like Arabic, history, and religion to reflect anti-regime ideology and Salafi interpretations of the Quran. “Our children have been intellectually invaded by two different, extreme ideologies,” said a former administrator of a school in Idlib. “They shouldn’t be exposed to either.”

Such interference—combined with the fact that degrees earned in opposition schools are neither recognized in regime territory nor abroad—pushed students to seek alternatives. Some cross the battle-lines from Idlib into regime areas, to sit for the exams needed to gain official accreditation. Doing so risks harassment by regime and rebel forces alike: “My son managed to leave Idlib for exams by telling rebels that he was visiting his aunt, and by traveling well in advance of exam times,” said a father in the town of Salqin, in northern Idlib. “The regime also interrogated him harshly and he feared he would be disappeared. But at the end of the day our children need education and the rebels’ diplomas are not accepted anywhere.”

Accelerating and prolonging this downward spiral is the rampant spread of corruption within those educational institutions that still operate in Idlib. As with other documents—and as elsewhere across Syria—counterfeit diplomas have become a cottage industry. Indeed, this line of business has become so commonplace as to drive down the prices of fake accreditations, while the number of shops supplying this service multiply. “You can’t find a job but want to make a lot of money in Idlib?” wrote one well-known activist on Facebook in 2019. “All you need is a laptop, photoshop, and a few advertisements on social media proving your ability to fake documents.”

Indeed, forged diplomas are but one component in an almost anarchic system of falsification. Teachers themselves increasingly forge their credentials, in effect paying their way into jobs. Many are also known to sell exam results to students. In a particularly bizarre example, a wealthy businessman established a private university called Oxford—baselessly claiming affiliation with the venerable British institution.

Such corruption has further eroded what credibility remained for the province’s educational infrastructure. In August 2019, a big number of students in the town of Ariha scored unusually high marks in the science section of their university qualifying exams, with more than a dozen achieving perfect scores—an outrageous result, given that less than a handful of students would normally achieve such scores in any province across Syria. Local media heavily criticized the episode, prompting demonstrations to protest the corrupt exam administration. Administrators eventually threw out the entire town’s results, blaming an individual employee for facilitating the cheating.

All of the above factors have intensified yet another blow to Idlib’s educational infrastructure: the flight of qualified staff. As in every walk of life, those educators and administrators who can afford to escape have largely done so. Economic hardship provides yet another incentive to flee: Whereas teachers’ monthly salaries in the area typically hover between 25,000 to 30,000 Syrian pounds (roughly 50 to 70 dollars), Syrian teachers in Turkey often receive ten times that.

Ironically, the Western-funded aid sector has remained both a vital lifeline to Idlib’s education sector and a powerful accelerator of the brain-drain: “Many qualified staff have left public schools to work for NGOs, where they make twice as much money,” said a teacher in northern Idlib. “The only teachers left in schools are those with no qualifications. Most high school teachers nowadays have only just finished high school themselves.”

Despite all this degradation and devaluation, families in Idlib—as virtually everywhere else in Syria—continue to place enormous stock in education. Families go to extremes to ensure a baseline of education for the new generation: Children sometimes return to schools just a day after an airstrike that killed their classmates. Families pay increasingly daunting sums of money for private tutors: “Yesterday my father gave me money for private lessons, even though he’s struggling to buy food for our family,” said an 18-year old secondary school student. “He dreams of seeing me become a doctor.”

The obstacles, however, have never been greater. In 2019, a regime military offensive has wrought fresh destruction. Ripple effects from a countrywide economic downturn intensified Idlib’s overall desperation. Exacerbating the crisis, Western donors have scaled back desperately needed aid to avoid inadvertently bolstering the extremist faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—including, most recently, through cuts to European funding for Idlib’s Education Directorate. Yet abandonment will only make matters worse, fueling illiteracy and other social ills that will long outlive any given militia. Instead, the international community must be as creative and determined as Idlib’s society itself to invest in the new generation’s ability to recover and forge ahead. 

4 November 2019

This essay was penned by an Idlib-based Synaps researcher.

Illustration credit: Photograph of a Syrian school book, Damascus, October 2019 by Synaps / licensed by CC.