The Antioch Syrian University. The regime takes, the regime gives?

DARAMSUQ (DAMASCUS) – This week, the Board of Trustees of the private Antioch Syrian Private University held a meeting in which they discussed the affairs of the university and preparations for mitigating the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the upcoming academic year. The Board also discussed plans to expand in the new academic year with new majors and specializations.

The Syriac Orthodox Church has a long history of running private primary and high schools, for example in Aleppo and Gozarto (Jazira) Region in North and East Syria, where, besides the Syrian Ba’ath curriculum, the schools currently teach the basics of the Syriac language through religious hymns and catechisms a couple of hours a week. The initiative to establish a private university, intended originally in the Gozarto, was taken by the predecessor of the current Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Aphrem II already in 2007.

Current Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, His Holiness Aphrem II, officially opened the university on 6 November 2018 after first opening its doors on 8 September that year. The Antioch Syrian Private University is owned by Renyo, a private company whose name is Syriac for “Idea” or “Thought”, and is located in Maarat Saidnaya.  Maarat Saidnaya is also the location of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate. The University President is Dr. Rakan Razzouk.

At risk of stating the obvious, corruption, nepotism, and patronage are widespread under the Syrian Ba’ath Regime and deeply rooted in the ruling al-Assad family and Ba’ath party. The ongoing infighting between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his cousin Rami Makhlouf over the assets of the state is one manifestation of this reality.

The Ba’ath party has ruled Syria since 1963 and has Arabism as its main ideology. Although Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez has several times explicitly and publicly stated that Syria is in the Syriacs name, the state has refused to officially recognize Syriac as an ethnic identity. Officially, Syria is called the Syrian Arab Republic, the army the Syrian Arab Army, and the constitution requires the President of the Syrian Arab Republic to be of Muslim faith. Syriacs were, and still are, seen and treated well as indigenous to Syria but merely so in a religious capacity; they can be Christians, but not Syriacs.

The Ba’athist regime’s call for the support of the Syriac people is still done mainly through the church hierarchy, the structure around which most Syriacs are still organized. As an authoritarian status-quo regime, the Ba’ath Regime keeps Syriac Melkite, Maronite, Orthodox, and Catholic church leaders close and under implicit and explicit pressure as a means to control indigenous Christians, keeping the patriarchs of the different churches close to it in Daramsuq (Damascus). This system predates the current regime and has a precedent in the Ottoman “Millet” system, which they in turn inherited from the Byzantines.

In the Middle East, churches assent not necessarily because they like authoritarian regimes and their oppressive and ruthless policies, but out of an anxiety for the lives of their faithful.

It was only after the popular Syrian uprising in 2011 and the fall-out between Syria and Turkey, the Syrian regime gave the green light for the Syriac Orthodox and Catholic churches to publicly commemorate the Sayfo Genocide of 1915 and establish monuments throughout Syrian cities with a Syriac presence. At the same time, Turkey encouraged religious minorities to organize prayer in support of Turkey’s operation in Syria.

The regime takes, the regime gives? Where the Syriacs are one of the oldest peoples inhabiting Syria, they have for decades, like other minority peoples of the region, been deprived of legal and constitutional recognition and denied the associated cultural and political rights. That is, denied by the ruling Ba’ath regime at least.

After the 2011 popular uprising and in urgent need to shift military resources to Syria’s western provinces, the Syrian regime cut a deal with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its associated militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), handing over to them control of large swathes of northeastern Syria, a diverse but majority Arab region, while keeping a military and intelligence presence in key sectors.

This evolved into the Kurdish-led Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) where activist Syriac political parties and organizations – though not necessarily representing the majority of the Syriac people in the region – were at the base of the DAA as co-founders. From 2015 onward, these Syriac parties and organizations started developing a secular Syriac curriculum to be taught in Syriac schools in the DAA to replace the Ba’ath curriculum. According to its proponents, it was an attempt to free Syriacs from the mentality of Arabism, to break with the notion of Syriacs being Arab Christians and to emancipate Syriacs in secular, cultural, and political self-representation.

The introduction of a full Syriac curriculum failed as the developed Syriac curriculum was only partially introduced in private Syriac schools. In August 2018, the church hierarchy, school boards, and Kurdish, Arab, and Syriac parents (the overall majority of students in the private Syriac schools in Gozarto are not Syriac) heavily objected to replacing the current curriculum in a large protest in the streets of Zalin (Qamishli) and declined the imposition of the Syriac curriculum on their schools.

Also read: The Olaf Taw Association and the Question of the Revival of Syriac Culture and Language in Gozarto

Anxious about the lives of their faithful, Syriac Catholic, Melkite, Orthodox, and Maronite church leaders assent, comply, and self-censure. We also have to remember that the ruthless and dreaded Syrian intelligence services – and other intelligence services — hold key sectors in the cities of Gozarto Region, especially in Zalin where the protest against the imposition of the Syriac curriculum took place.

The fierce rejection and the protest in the streets of Zalin, which included local church leaders, was primarily due to the fears over wider national and international recognition. A legitimate concern given the potential for issues with admittance to Syria’s universities, nearly all of which are located in regime territory. Such a situation would decrease children’s future prospects for higher education and employability. There is no clear answer to the question of wider acceptance of the curriculum at the moment. It will take time to develop the new Syriac curriculum, train Syriac teachers, and educate students in the language. The question of national acceptability will only be answered through negotiations with the regime.

Another reason for the fierce rejection and protest by church leaders could be implicit or explicit pressure from the regime. Where the DAA, and especially the Kurdish component, has already replaced the Ba’ath curriculum in many state schools under its control with its own curriculum, replacing the Ba’ath curriculum in private Syriac schools with a Syriac developed curriculum would be unacceptable for the regime. Introduction of a Syriac curriculum would be a direct rejection of the Ba’ath regime, a further step in the emancipation of Syriacs and a next step in the consolidation of the democratic model of the DAA, demonstrating that, rather than a purely Kurdish alternative, the DAA system could be applied to all parts of Syria. As the regime can not easily stop the strong and determined Kurdish component, it can influence the smaller Syriac component in the same manner as it has done in recent decades through the church leadership. After all, Syriacs should not complain as Syria is in their name.

If we assume that the regime has learned from decades of playing one community off of another through strategic punishment and reward, the establishment of the Antioch Syrian Private University may very well be an attempt to reward the Syriac leadership for protesting in August 2018 against the imposition of a Syriac curriculum in DAA administered areas. The regime takes and the regimes gives.