Study: Syrian Textbooks Showcase Russia as Ideological Ally, Iran as Regional Rival
Recently-released Syrian textbooks introduce Russia as a close ally while presenting Iran and Turkey as regional competitors, suggesting that Damascus’ current alignment with Tehran may be temporary, a new report claims.
The study — released this month by the Jerusalem-based Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) — examines the updated 2017-18 Syrian curriculum used in areas controlled by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which receives extensive support from Russia and Iran as it fights to recapture territories lost to rebel groups during the country’s ongoing civil war.
“The Russian Federation and the Soviet Union that came before, are viewed approvingly, especially in relation to modernity and technology,” the report’s authors noted.
Russian language — which was introduced to Syrian schools as a second foreign language choice in the 2014-15 school year — is being studied by more than ten thousand students, and the country “emerges from the curriculum as a close ideological and cultural friend and ally.”
“Syria’s ambitions of creating an ‘Arab Homeland’ stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf and covering large swaths of Asia and Africa do not culturally contradict a Russia playing the role of a world power,” the researchers indicated.
In contrast, pan-Arab and Syrian nationalism strongly conflict with Iranian hegemony and regional expansionism in the Middle East and Greater Syria, made up of current-day Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon.
With the exception of embracing mutual antagonism toward Israel and the West, the Islamic Republic’s political culture and way of life are “flatly rejected by the Syrian curriculum.”
“No non-Arab should rule the Arab, especially not an Islamist of the Khomeinist-Shiite Persian variety,” the study’s authors observed in explanation of this attitude.
“There is no acknowledgement of Iranian cultural heritage and contributions over millennia,” and no Persian language courses are offered, they wrote. “The curriculum maintains the Iranian province of Khuzestan is an Arab territory,” as are the Gulf islands.
The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah — an Iranian proxy that defends the Assad regime alongside other Shiite militias — is conspicuously missing from the textbooks.
“Strategic interests and pragmatic considerations may lead to a continuation of the decades-long Iranian-Syrian alliance,” the researchers predicted. “On the national and cultural levels, however, there is no genuine synergy between the two countries.”
Syrian pan-Arab ideology is likewise opposed to Turkey’s approach to Islamism, “Ottomanism and pan-Turkic imperial drive,” with the curriculum showcasing territorial disputes centered on Alexandretta in Turkey’s Hatay province and beyond.
The hostility is significantly more overt when discussing Israel, which the textbooks alternatively call the “Racist/Terrorist/Zionist Entity” and accuse of controlling the global media and practicing religious and ethnic racism.
“Textbooks teach that Israel is a terrorist state and therefore all means are legitimate in the war against it, including terror and suicide attacks,” the study’s authors noted. Antisemitic motifs — including references to the character of Shylock from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice — are also found, while the Holocaust is not mentioned.
The West is portrayed with similar disdain, often in the context of colonialism and imperialism.
The curriculum notably fails to capture Syria’s ethno-religious diversity, containing no “references to the heritage and identity of the Kurdish, Alawite, Druze, Shiite and various Sunni groups.” An exception are the country’s Christian minority, which receives special textbooks.
The country’s ongoing civil war is also often cast aside, with textbooks “ranging from denial of its existence to encouragement of volunteering and assistance to victims of the disaster.”
“While Syria’s children see with their own eyes the civil war rage around them, any explanation of the war is ignored in their schoolbooks,” said IMPACT-se CEO Marcus Sheff, adding that the Assad regime’s “taut, Baathist orthodoxy remains unmoved.”
The study concluded that with the exception of gender equality and tolerance toward Christians, the curriculum fails to abide by UNESCO-derived standards on Peace and Tolerance.
“If there is any policy recommendation from this research, it is that the international community should not compromise on meaningful peace education in Syria,” its authors suggested. “The ruthless and rampant violence is the result of a faulty worldview which cannot be resolved without tackling the issue of education.”