Disputes, arrests over school curriculum in northeastern Syria

Kurdish students attend class at a school in Qamishli, Syria, March 11, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Issam Abdallah)
Kurdish students attend class at a school in Qamishli, Syria, March 11, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Issam Abdallah)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The arrest of a number of teachers last week who were privately teaching the official curriculum of the Syrian government highlights the complex situation in northeastern Syria where Damascus and the local self-ruled administration compete over what is taught to the youth who live there.

On Jan. 19, Kurdish-led Internal Security Forces (ISF), also known as Asayesh, arrested seven teachers for secretly teaching the Syrian regime curriculum in the Kurdish border town of Darbasiya. On the following day, students and their relatives protested the detentions.

The move came amid increasing tensions between the Syrian government and the Asayish in Hasakah and Qamishlo.

An anonymous source from Darbasiya told Kurdistan 24 that the teachers were using the old program for some students in the city as private courses for exams in the ninth and twelfth grades.

“They prepare at home and they go to exams in Qamishli and Hasakah because there are some schools there still being run by the regime.”

Last Saturday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the teachers were released after promising that they wouldn’t teach the material again.

However, according to the official website of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the last two remaining teachers, named as Nizam Al-Din Aliko and Gihad Aliko, were released on Tuesday.

In two separate statements released on Jan. 20 and 24, the KNC condemned the arrest of teachers and called on the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) “to put an end to these acts and assume the responsibilities they promised (for the Kurdish dialogue to continue).”

The Syrian Kurdish opposition party claimed it was an attempt by the PYD (Democratic Union Party) leadership to create obstacles for ongoing Kurdish unity talks that are supported by the US and expected to resume in February.

The PYD and the KNC, the two major factions among Syrian Kurdish parties, renewed negotiations in early November in efforts to stand together as a united front after Turkey’s cross-border offensive in northern Syria in October 2019.

These talks were temporarily suspended due to the absence of US officials and the US elections in November, but are expected to resume in February.

The KNC, although it’s a member of the Syrian opposition that opposes the regime in Damascus, seems to prefer the education system of the Syrian government over that of the local Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (AANES).

The KNC said the arrests “contradicted the preliminary understandings between the council and the SDF leadership to leave the choice to the students and the families for the study of the curriculum that they desire and facilitating the opening of special institutes and courses in the state curriculum until the agreement on a curriculum recognised by UNICEF.”

Mohammad Ibrahim, a local researcher focused on northeast Syria, told Kurdistan 24 that the education issue has been a point of contention between Damascus and the AANES after it replaced the Syrian government curriculum with its own.

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“This has raised many concerns about the recognition of the curriculum, and the future of students in the region. In 2021, the Self Administration has completed its own education textbooks that cover all classes from elementary to secondary level, banning the GoS (Government of Syria) curriculum completely in areas under its control.”

Since the schools with the local curriculum are not yet recognized, and to secure a future of their children, some locals still try to send their children to public schools under Syrian government control in both Hasakah and Qamishlo.

“Those willing to continue in GoS universities decline joining Self Administration schools,” Mohammed added.

In September 2018, there was also a local controversy after the Kurdish-led authorities tried to shut down pro-regime Christian schools for refusing the AANES curriculum in Qamishlo. In the end, a compromise was reached and the schools were able to continue to teach the government curriculum.

Rohat Salih Xelil, Co-chair of the Education and Learning Commission of the Jazeera Region of the AANES, told Kurdistan 24 via the Rojava Information Center that any form of private lessons must be registered with local authorities.

She said teachers who do not register are warned and if after three warnings they continue to teach the material, their names are given to a local court.

“As Education Commission, our only work is to warn them and ask them to get an authorization from the Autonomous Administration. What happens once we give their names to the court is not our prerogative anymore,” she said.

“Teachers that would be willing to start private lessons activities have to get an authorization from our Commission and to respect certain conditions,” she said.

She underlined that teachers are “not allowed to teach the schools’ own material; that it must be the one of Autonomous Administration’s curriculum or Regime’s curriculum.”

She said the administration bans unregistered private lessons since teachers would charge students millions of Syrian Pounds that would disadvantage those from poorer backgrounds.

“We opened our own tutoring lessons for the students that are in 12th grade and will pass their Baccalaureate. Public school teachers are paid by us in order to help the students in the topics where they are weak for free.”

“This is also the only way to reach equality between the families, because as a matter of fact, the only families that can send their children to the paid private lessons are the richest ones,” she added.

Aron Lund, a Middle East researcher at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) told Kurdistan 24 that the “education system has long been an important arena for the power struggles in north eastern Syria, with all sides trying to impose their rules and their curriculum.”

“I don’t know the background to these particular events, but there have been repeated conflicts in the past and there will in all likelihood be more of them in the future.”

Editing by John J. Catherine