Russia is offering 500 scholarships to Syrian students in master’s degree and doctoral programs for the 2019 academic year, among other measures to support higher education institutions in Syria, the Syrian government news agency has reported.
The news agency described the support as part of the Russian contribution to Syria’s post-civil war reconstruction.
The U.S. travel ban for those holding Syrian passports has largely blocked Syrian students from studying in the United States, and Syrians also have great difficulty accessing British and continental European scholarships. Some Syrian students have been able to travel to Europe for a semester under “international credit mobility” programs, according to professors at Syrian private universities. But Russia and Iran are the only countries where many Syrian students have been able to travel in recent years to get degrees.
The Syrian news agency also announced, in recent weeks, plans to establish a Russian-Syrian research center at Ba’th University, Homs, in partnership with Moscow State Technological University; that Damascus University will offer a new Russian language course; and that Syria signed an agreement with Russia to establish joint educational projects and student exchange programs.
“The relationship between Russia and Syria in higher education is not new,” said Omar Imady, senior fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews. “A lot of Syrian students studied in the Soviet Union,” when Syria was allied with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
The Syrian news agency reported that the grants include free tuition, living expenses and accommodation, plus a full year of Russian language tuition. Applications were encouraged in “aviation, navigation, car industry, informatics, media, languages, chemistry, physics, mathematics and medicine,” the agency reported. Fourteen Russian universities are taking part in the program, and 1,400 students applied for the 500 places. Vadim Zaichkov, director of the Russian Cultural Center in Damascus, said in the news agency report that the goal of the scholarships was “to help the Syrian people in preparing cadres for reconstruction in the coming period.”
Academics with expertise in Syria see different reasons for the Russian support now.
Having supported the Syrian government militarily during the war, Russia now wants to consolidate the Syrian government’s survival by strengthening state-controlled institutions including universities; and to establish an enduring Russian presence.
“The Russians are pushing for normalization. They want life in Syria to return to something like business as usual,” said Amr Al-Azm, professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio, USA. Al-Azm was a director at the General Department of Antiquities and Museums in Syria from 1999 to 2004, and then taught at the University of Damascus until 2006. He is a member of the board of directors of The Day After, a Syrian civil society organization based in Istanbul that describes itself as supporting a democratic transition to Syria.
“It is probably a good thing that Russian language courses are being offered,” Al-Azm said. “The Russians are going to be around for a while in Syria [in a post-war reconstruction], so if a young person knows Russian it might improve job prospects.”
Al-Azm cited the participation of Russia’s Hermitage Museum in the restoration of the ancient site of Palmyra—which had been severely damaged by Islamic State fighters—as an example of what he sees as the Russian commitment to Syrian culture and society.
Al-Azm was skeptical about the value of the Russian scholarships. “The experience of Syrian students who have studied in Russia is that the quality of the education they receive there is very poor,” he said. “Current students would not see going to Russia to study as an attractive prospect,” he said; on the other hand, “being able to go to a university in the United Kingdom would be a coup.”
But scholarships for Syrian students to study in Russia could fill a gap left by reduced opportunities to study in Europe. “A lot of Syrians who were hoping to study in European countries lost their scholarships during the war,” said Haian Dukhan, a teaching fellow in international relations at the University of Leicester.
“For Syrian students who lost the opportunity to study in Europe, the opportunity to study in Russia must be a good thing, and better than staying in Syria,” he said.
From the Syrian government’s point of view, Dukhan said, the advantage of students studying in Russia is that “Syrians aren’t going to claim asylum in Russia, as they might do in France.”
Russian intervention in Syrian higher education should not be seen as evidence of a determination by the Syrian government to reform higher education in the country, Al-Azm said, citing a reform plan published in 2001 which was mostly not implemented.
“Students will go to Russia if they don’t have any other option. These measures are more political than academic,” Imady said.