In February 2011, when 15 school children were arrested in Daraa, a small city close to the Jordanian border, everything changed in Syria. The young boys, seized by local authorities for aping revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt and spray painting “the people demand the fall of the regime” on the walls of a local school, were beaten and tortured. Thousands of protesters gathered at the al-Omari Mosque and marched at security forces, demanding the release of the children, greater political freedom, and an end to government corruption. When riot police failed to stop the protesters’ advance with batons and water cannons, members of the security services opened fire on the unarmed crowd with live ammunition, killing four and wounding a dozen.
The Ba’ath party headquarters in Daraa was burned to the ground and demonstrations grew daily amid ever harsher security crackdowns. Huge counter-protests, planned by and in support of the regime, occurred in Damascus, with demonstrators shouting, “God, Syria, and Bashar, that’s all.” The tension across the country was palpable.
This was the beginning of the daily peaceful demonstrations in Syria, but the university at that time did not play the important role they had played in other revolutions in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt.
Why was this so? When we understand that Syrian authoritarianism under the Assad family considered universities as branches of the ruling Ba’ath party, this explains why the auditorium of the university itself became the place where Al-Assad addressed the Syrian people.
Although historically the Syrian university had been the source of mass protests against French occupation, military rule, and the Baghdad alliance in the 1950s, following the onset of Ba’ath party rule, the Syrian university system was quickly transformed into an extension of the hand of the security state. Although the Ba’ath party made higher education freely available to hundreds of thousands of Syrian university students, universities were also used as a means of spying on the Syrian youth. Students were (and still are) encouraged to join the Ba’ath party and the National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS, which is run by Ba’ath party). Doing so could raise a student’s final grades and afford the student easier access to university housing.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Syrian universities were slow to wake during the early days of the Syrian revolution in 2011. The vast patronage system and network of informants across Syria’s university system was enough to effectively stifle any burgeoning youth protest movements against the regime. When demonstrations did occur, they were quickly met with counter-protests organized by the pro-regime NUSS. Students were encouraged to report anti-regime activities to supervisors and report on students filming anti-regime demonstrations. Hundreds of plain-clothes police officers were deployed to patrol campuses as well. The result? For months, no large youth protest movements in support of the Syrian revolution appeared on Syrian university campuses.
Then in 2012, as violence in the conflict increased, the wall of fear that had held back Syrian students was finally broken. Students in universities across the country began to gather in support of the Syrian revolution. Student protests, like the demonstrations held in the streets, were not organized without consequence, however. In May 2012, seven students were killed when Syrian government security forces attacked a demonstration and arrested hundreds at Aleppo University. Syrian human rights monitoring organizations estimate that more than 35,000 Syrian students have been arrested on campus since the start of the revolution.[i] Only half of those have been released from prison. Universities across the country are now on lockdown. Every student is searched and interrogated when entering campus. Syrian secret police regularly patrol, arrest and harass students. Members of the NUSS have received training and even weapons directly from their supervisors in the Syrian security forces. NUSS students provide names of students to their regime supervisors and assist in conducting the mass arrests that now occur every semester during exams.
But students in support of the Syrian revolution have not sat idly by. The Union of Free Syrian Students (UFSS) was formed early in the revolution to serve as an anti-regime counterweight to the pro-Ba’athist NUSS. The UFSS continues to this day to report and document on-campus arrests of students and the deaths of university students due to regime-sponsored violence. Additionally, the UFSS organizes flash anti-regime demonstrations and conducts boycotts. UFSS also tries to support students that have been expelled from university and forced to flee the country due to their anti-regime activities, for example, in working to establish a scholarship fund for students seeking to compete their studies outside of Syria.
Two years after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, it is clear that the struggle for democracy and freedom has devolved into an armed conflict with no end in sight. Just as a stalemate seems to prevail in Syrian streets, so too is there a stalemate on university campuses across the country. Most Syrian universities now look more like prisons than centers of learning. With networks of spies and secret police waiting to arrest any who would dare question the authority of the Syrian government on campus, prospects for young Syrian revolutionaries seem dim. And yet, with the Union of Free Syrian Students and other similar groups, it is clear that there remain those who are willing to go to great lengths to contribute to Syria’s struggle for liberation.
Scholars at Risk and our partners receive regular requests for emergency assistance for Syrian scholars and students. Scholars at Risk urges higher education institutions willing to host study or work visits by Syrian students and scholars to contact the network office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations to aide Syrian higher education can be made to Scholars at Risk by clicking here.