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University students in opposition areas seek recognition for their studies

Students in opposition-held areas struggle to earn recognized degrees, but the expanding university landscape in northwest Syria could bring new opportunities.

12 July 2021

AMMAN — In early June, pro-regime media announced that 900 high school students traveled this year from the opposition-held region in northwest Syria to regime-held areas to take the ‘baccalaureate’ exams in order to receive a certificate marking the completion of secondary schooling. The figure is likely inflated but reveals the ongoing predicament of students living in opposition-held areas.

From primary school certificates to university diplomas, students struggle to earn degrees recognized outside of the opposition-controlled areas, leading some to turn towards the institutions of the regime. However, the education sector in northwest Syria is quickly developing, as illustrated by the controversial opening of several Turkish faculties in recent years.

Degrees issued in the opposition education system are not recognized by the Syrian government, blocking students’ access to universities and jobs.

A splintered educational system

The Syrian education system has splintered over the course of the conflict. New educational programs – such as Kurdish-language instruction or courses covering the history of the revolution – have been implemented outside areas controlled by the regime.  In northeast Syria alone, controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), three different curricula are implemented.

This has significant implications, as degrees issued in the opposition education system are not recognized by the Syrian government, blocking students’ access to universities and jobs in regime-held areas.

Every year, a few hundred high school students travel to regime-held areas to sit for the regime’s exams. “The reason that pushes them to go is the lack of trust in the future of opposition-held areas,” Ahmad al-Gharbi (a pseudonym), a school principal in Idlib province, told Syria Direct. Students and families living in the ever-shrinking last opposition-held enclave worry about being left with worthless diplomas should the regime retake the area. 

This coping strategy is not without sparking controversy and often faces pushback from activists and the local authorities. In 2020, the Islamist armed group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant force in Idlib province, allegedly blocked some students from crossing into the regime-held areas, confiscating the examination cards of female students.

“I cannot pass the regime exam for many reasons, the first of which is my political belief. To bring down the legitimacy of the regime, I refuse to recognize the system,” Younes Ahmad, a student at the University of Free Aleppo founded by the opposition in 2016, told Syria Direct.  But security concerns are also a factor: “If I travelled to the regime areas, they would arrest me straight away,” Ahmad added. 

There are many risks associated with the trip, and few students choose to sit for the regime exams; those who do usually still have relatives in regime-held areas and are sufficiently convinced that they are not wanted by security services. To some extent, the trip is easier for women, who are less likely to be on a wanted list. However, they may be discouraged from undertaking the trip due to the fear of being harassed.

The higher education landscape

Likewise, degrees awarded by universities in the opposition-held areas are not recognized.

Two universities dominate the higher education landscape: the University of Free Aleppo, located in the northern Aleppo countryside under the control of the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG), and the University of Idlib, managed by the HTS-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) affiliated. This is in addition to a small number of private Syrian universities only accredited by opposition authorities.

A majority of students are enrolled in the University of Idlib, which in 2019 accounted for 15,000 of 23,000 university students in the opposition- and HTS-controlled  areas.

Thara al-Ali (a pseudonym), a university student and media activist living in Idlib province, chose the University of Idlib because it was the closest to her home. “As a woman, I try to avoid going far distances and traveling there may be dangerous,” she told Syria Direct, also highlighting the logistical complications she faces as a mother of young children.

“I thought that in my last year, I would transfer to the University of Aleppo because it is recognized in Turkey,” al-Ali added. Institutions in northern Aleppo are generally better recognized internationally than their counterparts in Idlib, whose Salvation Government is closely affiliated to the terrorist-designated organization HTS. 

On the other hand, the SIG in northern Aleppo benefits from a close relationship with Turkey, which has encouraged the rise of Turkish companies and services in northwest Syria, criticized by some as a policy of economic and cultural annexation of the region.

Turkish universities’ growing influence

Each year, a small number of students benefit from scholarships to Turkey. Those who do not earn a scholarship and cannot afford education in Turkey have the option to enter one of several university annexes opened by Turkish universities over the past year in northern Aleppo.

Some fear Turkey’s growing economic and cultural encroachment in northern Syria.

“Turkish universities are mostly targeted for Syrian Turkmen [a Syrian minority of Turkish origins]. Their community is small, but many Turkmen speak Turkish and easily enter Turkish universities,” al-Gharbi noted. “They are very much supported by the Turks, at the educational, military and financial level.”

In February, Turkey announced the opening of a medical faculty affiliated to the University of Health Sciences in Istanbul in the city of al-Rai, a predominantly Turkmen-populated town located in the northeast of Aleppo province. In 2019, the University of Gaziantep opened three faculties in Afrin, Azaz and al-Bab in northern Aleppo province.

Developing education in these areas is a way to make them more attractive and could support Turkey’s efforts to relocate Syrian refugees back into Syria. But this policy has been greeted with mixed reactions, as some fear Turkey’s growing economic and cultural encroachment in northern Syria. 

Ultimately, university students in opposition-held areas may rejoice from an increasing number of higher education options, including the possibility to earn diplomas recognized outside Syria. “There are a lot of people who want to study in Turkish universities because it secures a better academic future,” Ahmad noted, remarking that this does not necessarily give people a better opportunity to emigrate to Turkey after their studies.

“The education sector in opposition-held areas is undergoing huge development, while in regime areas, things have been regressing,” al-Gharbi added. “This is another reason students are less interested in going [back to the regime]. Many prefer to stay in the opposition areas because they think there are more opportunities.

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