Despite the multifaceted crisis facing Syria and the Civilian-Targeting US Sanctions, Damascus University excels
by Franklin Lamb
"To be sure the sanctions bite hard." -- UN Ambassador Susan Rice
Students everywhere are special people and this observer has discovered that Syrian students are among the very best.
Meeting and interviewing students again this past week, before and following a frank and enlightening discussion with Prof. Dr. Mohammad Amer Al-Mardini, the indefatigable President of Damascus University, about the situation of the students and current instruction at the University, one cannot ,even as a foreigner, fail to feel pride in Syrian students.
Good meeting places, among others on campus, include “outdoor cafes” -- a ‘street student union’ of sorts -- consisting of a few chairs and portable tablets. They are scattered among the dozens of vendor stalls that line “DU Boulevard” outside the main DU campus in central Damascus. Here students can buy everything from school supplies to mobile phones to snacks. It’s a perfect place to meet and chat with students.
One learns from them about the many effects on the education system in Syria of the US-led sanctions. Some argue that the Obama administration actually fuels the current crisis with its sanctions and achieves the opposite result of what the White House and its allies claim they are seeking. These freewheeling discussions leave a foreigner with a reminder why this student body ranks among the best in the World. How Damascus University has to date reacted to this crisis evidences the same status.
Currently there are more than 200,000 full-time and ‘open-learning’ students at Damascus University, the 6th largest in the World. The core institutes of the University were established in 1901; they were the medicine and law institutes that formed the basis of the Syrian University that was established in 1923. In 1958, it got its current name, Damascus University when Aleppo University was established.
All of the students are feeling in effects of the Obama Administration’s harsh civilian-targeting sanctions and many are increasingly in the cross-hairs of the “humanitarian sanctions which Washington and Brussels claim “exempt food, medicines and medical supplies” and therefore “should be considered humane.”
Among DU Faculties most severely affected by the US-led sanctions are the Science Departments and the Medical and Nursing schools according to administration and student sources. Chemicals used in various science classes, medicines and medical equipment cannot be found as before and if some are brought in from Europe or elsewhere, the University often has to pay four times the normal price.
Utah’s Brigham Young University gained the respect and appreciation of many in Syria for its shipments to DU’s nursing school of medicines and equipment and even “model doll babies” which in Syria use in baby care classes. All are now banned by the US sanctions which claim to exempt medical equipment and medicines.
Damascus University, with its 36 specialized faculties and five higher institutes is no banking-hours institution and its proven commitment is to give the highest possible quality education to as many students as possible. Syria’s largest university is now open for classes 365 days a year minus a few holidays and a few short breaks for her professors and overworked staff, partly due to the increased number of students arriving from across Syria. The DU administration and faculty work with faculties in war zones to guarantee students can continue their studies without missing key exams required for semester advancement. Still, about 20% of college level students are unable to attend due to transportation and displacement problems.
One direct and predictable severe impact of the US-led civilian-targeting sanctions in Syria is that they have essentially stranded approximately 700 Damascus University students in Europe and half a dozen in the US, forcing some to take leaves of absence and find jobs to survive. This is because, as is well known among the US Treasury Department “craftsmen” who devise the sanctions, these students are no longer able to receive funds for Damascus University to pay for their foreign tuition or living expenses because the banking system has been essentially shut down. More than 1500 Syrian students from other institution of higher learning are similarly stranded as a direct result of the US-led sanctions.
Never the less, Damascus University keeps its commitment to pay the students their tuition fees and their living cost as they are on full scholarships. Currently, parents must pick up the funds from the University accountant and find a way to transfer them. Should they decide to send it via Western Union, for example, a new “sanctions surcharge” of 70 euros for every 1,000 euros sent, is demanded by WU and other money transfer agencies, suggesting another form of war profiteering.
To make things even more difficult for the students, foreign universities which might consider lending their stranded Syrian students tuition money or might even consider aiding them with scholarships or a grant have been “chilled” and are backing-off because these institutions do not want to be accused of "sanction-busting" by the US Treasury hound dogs. Few food or medicine suppliers -- given the sanctions' language, the meanings of which is uncertain even for their own lawyers, some of whom have declared it incomprehensible -- want to risk the wrath of the US Treasury Department and be slapped with severe penalties including very expensive fines by dealing with anyone in Syria.
One of the US Treasury hound dogs is David Cohen, Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Late last month, Mr. Cohen made a trip to the region (including Israel) to brief allies and businesses as well as NGO’s “to be sure the sanctions were biting hard” to use a favorite phase of UN Ambassador Susan Rice. The Obama administration, reportedly frustrated by the fact that its multi-tiered sanctions have failed to topple the governments of Syria and Iran, has been attempting to find and plug loopholes in the sanctions and are intensifying warnings to the international community not to mess with the US Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI) or the Office of Financial Assets Control (OFAC) by getting all wobbly-kneed and going soft on full sanction enforcement.
Meanwhile, Syria’s Department of Education is joining the struggle to shield Syria’s education institutions and is being joined by various student associations. To date, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education have not cut their substantial disbursements to schools and faculties. Tuition remains among the lowest in the world (almost free; 5 US $ a year with the current exchange rate) at Damascus University, which also provides housing for 15,000 students. The DU administration is currently under pressure to find more dormitory space for those needing housing.
Still, despite the conflict, even in Deraa near the Jordanian border where the current crisis started, DU’s campus continues to function.
Many DU students are also volunteering with assisting Syrian primary schools which urgently need their help. According to a December 2012 UNICEF education assessment of primary schools in Syria -- at least 2,400 schools have been damaged or destroyed, including 772 in Idlib (50 per cent of the total), 300 in Aleppo and another 300 in Deraa. Over 1,500 schools are being used as shelters for displaced persons. The Damascus University community has also taken on the humanitarian challenge of assisting sister educational institutions that have been affected by the current crisis including campuses in Homs, Deir al Zur and Aleppo, among others.
This observer has met several Damascus University students among the 9,000 volunteers, including Palestinian refugees, who are donating their time working with the Syria Red Crescent Society (SARCS). Many DU students are also volunteering by assisting at primary schools.
The grim reality for Syrian families, hospitals, health care facilities and now university students and educational institutions across the country is that the claimed "humanitarian" exemptions for food, medicine and medical equipment is little more than News-Speak.
Rather than target the people who represent Syria’s future leaders, the White House would do better to cancel its sanctions and send Secretary Kerry to Damascus to meet face-to-face with the Syrian people and government and demonstrate a real American interest in stopping the bloodshed. Armored vehicles and assorted “non-lethal aid” to one side in this conflict will only prolong the killing, as any student here will attest.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and can be reached c/o firstname.lastname@example.org
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