Syria/ 3. Competence, decision-making and administration  

3.2 Overall description of the system

Government institutions in charge of cultural aspects

On a National Level

International Cooperation and Planning Commission

This is a technical bureau associated with the leadership of the government’s cabinet that was founded on 11/1/2011 as an alternative to the State Planning Commission. The new commission works on studying and analyzing environmental, social and economic situations as well as pointing out the sources of strength and weakness and following up on regional and international updates. In addition, the commission also works on preparing future studies on different issues to predict Syrian economic updates along with suggesting general visions and objectives and long-medium-short-term strategies and plans for social and economic development on the general national and provincial level.

The law has also considered the International Cooperation and Planning Commission an official gate between the Syrian Arab Republic and the outside world, and the only official channel with Arab and foreign countries as well as with international and regional financial institutions and organizations on issues related to achieving grants, funds, and technical aid[1].

As a conclusion, the income of the International Cooperation and Planning Commission is considered, within governmental institutions that are in charge of organizing cultural sector’s work, a necessity to understand the general image of the cultural work in the public sector. Although the commission is not especially considered with culture, it’s the side that’s assigned with establishing a commission for international cooperation and planning in every institution and ministry, of which the Ministry of Culture is included.

State Planning Commission

SPC is the body in charge of elaborating short, medium and long-term development plans on massive and sectorial levels. SPC is a technical apparatus affiliated to the Council of Ministers, it aims to support and enable the “Higher Council for Planning” to fulfill the needs for social and economic development in Syria, including the cultural sector.

SPC oversees plans and follow up their implementation, and seek to achieve the sufficient and necessary international cooperation to support the implementation of development plans, and provide technical assistance to the government concerning economic development issues.

Decree 86 of 1968 and its amendments by virtue of Decree 5 of 2004 is the SPC main organizing legislation, since it stipulates the basic duty of SPC; elaborating the economic and social development plans and providing the necessary internal and external resources for its implementation.

On this basis, SPC assumes follow up, supervision, organizing, coordination and support with and for all the bodies involved within the framework and responsibilities defined in that Decree.

The 1st FYP in Syria was elaborated in 1960. The current 10th FYP (2006-2011) has three general sectorial objectives[2] as following:

  • Adopt cultural development in its broad sense, toward "culture for everyone" through consolidating human concepts and values to raising the cultural standard of the public, spread the culture of dialogue, introduce the Arabic culture to the world and disseminate its message.

  • Develop the Syrian cultural product; create the necessary empowering environment to raise the cultural movement; publicizing knowledge and culture, being considered as an investment sector, and investing culture and knowledge for the benefit of individuals and the prosperity of society.

  • Watching over the Syrian diversified cultural heritage and to promote the antiquities status, and to dedicate the necessary attention to it being one of the key alternatives.


The relation between SPC and the different ministries, including the Ministry of Culture, at the level of annual plans is summarized as follows:

Each ministry comprises a statistics and planning directorate, administratively subject to the concerned minister, but in terms of its work connected to SPC, SPC duty is to lay the annual plans for the concerned ministry including the investment plans which gets its budget after it’s included in the annual investment plans of SPC, and being approved by the Council of Ministers, while the current budget of the ministries is confirmed after it is certified by the Parliament during the discussion of the General State Budget.

Based on what is stated above, the classification of SPC within the governmental institution is considered a necessity to understand the general illustration of the cultural work in the public sector, although it is not a concerned institution of culture in a special way, but it is the party which issue the substantial “Document” which defines the policies for the different ministries, including the Ministry of Culture.

Syrian National Commission for Education, Science and Culture

The national commission for education, science and communication sits within the Ministry of Education. It incorporates into its main structure a General Secretariat of staff and a public commission headed by the Minister of Culture. It also includes associate ministries: Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Expatriates, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Higher Education, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources, Ministry of Environment, the Commission for Planning and International Cooperation, and representational of governmental scientific institutions: the Center for Scientific Studies and Research, Atomic Energy Commission, and the Assad National Library. The National Commission was formed by Legislative Degree number 944 on 13/5/1976 based on the UNESCO Constitution that was ratified by member states, one of which was the Syrian Arab Republic, which joined the organization in 1946. The National Commission is considered the link between ministries and related national institutions and three international organizations: UNESCO, ISESCO and ALECSO.

Ministry of Culture

This ministry was established under the name of “Ministry of Culture and National Guidance” in 1958 during the unification with Egypt by virtue of Law 197. The Ministry is still pursuing the same objectives set for it when it was established as following:


  • Popularization of knowledge and culture, presentation of the Arabic culture and disseminate its message.

  • Public guidance using proper Pan-Arab ideological guidance; developing mass Pan-Arab awareness; counseling citizens to raise their social level, boost their morale and strengthen their sense of responsibility; motivate them to cooperate, sacrifice and intensify efforts to serve country and humanity.

  • Facilitate means of popular culture.

  • Contact overseas cultural and artistic institutions and benefit from their activities.

  • Implementation of the cultural agreements signed with foreign governments within the Ministry's jurisdictions.

  • Stage festivals and cultural and artistic events; hold conferences, organize competitions; offer prizes and encourage the establishment of cultural societies.

  • Revive the traditional Arabic heritage in the fields of science, literature and research.

  • Discover the archeological and historical heritage of the Syrian Region.

  • Establish archeological, historical and traditional museums.

  • Encourage arts and literature and steer them to achieve state's interests.


The ministry supervises a number of directorates and institutions that are administratively independent and artistically bonded with it, thus it’s considered the center of decision making for all the cultural sectors.

The bylaw of the ministry contains a detailed description of the nature of supposed cultural ministry activities, including: The Ministry of Culture shall work on developing artistic talents and qualifying them for artistic and creative production through art and academic centers and institutes (Fine and Empirical arts, music, theater and ballet), in addition to the other institutes interested in talent development of visual and Empirical arts and popular arts institutes, linked with the cultural centers available in most Syrian cities.

The ministry encourages people to found and create versatile cultural civil societies and clubs of cultural nature, it follow-up their activities, help them to fulfill their tasks, interact with the people through local cultural centers, theaters and different gallery locations open to the public at no cost. The ministry work on adopting artists and supporting their participation in local and international art exhibitions, as well as supporting private shows by providing financial and moral support to facilitate their international contribution.

The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance has developed alongside the political rhetoric, starting with its name which became the Ministry of Culture but without significant change to its role and Regulatory structure.

Directorates of the Ministry of Culture are as follows:


  • National Assad Library
  • Directorate General of Museums and Antiquities
  • National Organization for Cinema
  • Directorate General – Dar Al Assad for Culture and Arts/Opera House
  • Syrian Writers Association
  • Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts
  • High Institute of Music
  • the Ballet School
  • Directorate of Arab Academies of Music
  • Directorate of Theaters and Music
  • Technical Institute for Applied Arts
  • Directorate for Heritage
  • Directorate of Cultural Relations
  • Directorate of Fine Art
  • Directorate of Arab Cultural Centers
  • Directorate of Copyrights and related rights
  • Directorate of Engineering
  • Directorate of Computer Science
  • Directorate for Elderly Education
  • Planning and Survey Directorate
  • Directorate of  Censorship of Works of Art
  • Children’s Culture Directorate
  • Legal Affairs Directorate, and
  • Directorate of Administrative Affairs.


Other Ministries and organizations

A number of other ministries are concerned with different cultural sectors and arenas, such as:


  • Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, functions as an administrative body in charge of regulating NGOs.

  • Ministry of Tourism, which oversees the Higher Council of Tourism and Turism Promotion Directorate. The council is in charge of regulating businesses and investments in archeological sites, while the Directorate promotes Syrian archeological heritage through exhibitions, local festivals and participation in international fairs. The Directorate is also the regulating party of antiquities acquisition, On 25/1/2012, the Ministry of Tourism was issued a new structure, creating several new directorates[3] such as the Directorate of Religion Tourism, simply because Syria is rich of religious landmarks. As well as the Directorate of traditional crafts, with a main focus on how to advance local production and create job opportunities. Also, tourism centers have been converted into training institutes to upgrade the education and training of Tourism industry.

  • Ministry of Education, which oversees the departments concerned with school theater and other extracurricular artistic activities. In 2010, the Ministry of Education was able to attract 250 graduates from the High Institute of Theatrical Arts and the High Institute of Music. These graduates were the driving force behind the 2010 Arts festival, which was the first of its kind, followed by a second one in March15, 2011. The Directorate of School Theater held some workshops in 2011 with children refugees who had fled hot zones into safer territories.

  • Ministry of Defense runs the Military Theater, where Art major graduates do their mandatory military service. The Theater management signed contracts with few actresses to perform plays of patriotic themes in theater and on touring shows to military divisions.

  • Ministry of Media oversees the General Authority of Radio and TV.

  • Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, which oversees the Supreme Council for Arts and Culture, and the Arabic Language Academy.

  • Ministry of Economy oversees the Fairgrounds; home of the Chamber of Cinema Industry, Damascus Annual International exhibition, which activities are not limited to Exhibits but it also includes theatrical & musical shows as well as Fine Art exhibitions. The year 2012 was the Exhibition’s fifty-ninth session and the following bulletin was published in the Exhibitions and International Markets magazine: “due to the exceptional conditions and travel difficulties for participants, the fifty-ninth session of Damascus International Exhibition has been postponed till further notice”. Government official insisted that this was a postponement and not a cancellation, no update so far was received on when the exhibition might be held again.

  • The Ministry of Finance also oversees the chamber of film industry.

  • Ministry of Local Administration is partially involved as a management organization for the work of provinces and municipalities


Grassroots organizations and labor unions

Grassroots organizations are the regulatory frameworks that attract the potential citizens according to the nature of their work. These organizations are approved by state institutions but they Adopt different systems derives its general thrust of the national and pan-Arab perspectives and fall in three frames:

Cultural offices in Organizations affiliated with the Baath Party: such as Pioneers organization, Revolution Youth Union, and the Syrian Students Union, which participates in local cultural activities, international fairs and festivals, and competitions.

It was mentioned in the presidential decree issued on Feb 1st 2012 that “the workers of Baath Arab Socialist Party and Grassroots organizations who have not been elected or assigned leadership tasks should be appointed in vacancies (within state official positions) making a rule for this purpose. This step complies with the upcoming period when the Baath party will become an equal to the other Syrian parties. Then, it will reduce the Party’s financial burdens to a minimum and workers will get their salaries from the state budget, and serve in its institutions.

Cultural offices in other unions “whose board and chairperson are elected by their members” such as General Women’s Union, Syrian Union of Farmers and Labor Union. All these organizations participate in local and international cultural activities and receive support from relevant ministries.

Unions of artistic and cultural professions “whose board and chairperson are elected by their members” such as: Fine Artists union, Arab writers union, artist association, Syrian publisher’s union and journalists union.

All these unions are overseen by government agencies without Interference in the union’s functioning mechanism, they practice cultural activities on both national and international levels, and contribute efficiently in expanding and supporting Syrian art and culture, the unions receive amenities and support from the ministry of Media, Culture, and other stakeholders.

Local level

The Ministry of Local Administration “which is the new name assigned in 2009 to what was previously known as the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment” is the centralized administration for governorates and municipal councils. As shown in the organizational structure chart, every governorate has an executive office in charge of cultural affairs, celebrations and festivals. It also oversees the governorate cultural centers, even though these centers are technically affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, which creates duplication in these centers functions.

This Ministry was created in 1971 after the Local Administration Law was issued with the objective of placing responsibility in the hands of the people, and where local authorities work with a centralized administration that Regulates public participation in various fields, including cultural.

The directorates of culture are distributed on all 14 Syrian governorates, each one of these office serves as a sole representative of the Ministry of Culture, and these offices are the link between the Ministry and local authorities. they are the guardians of local activities which is planned on a monthly basis, this plan is subject to the Ministry's approval and funded by the governorate local authority.

A joint initiative was launched by the EU and Syrian government in 2005, to prepare the MAM Project (Municipal Administration Modernization) which was implemented first in an experimental stage in six cities[4]. MAM Project aims for decentralization in decision-making, giving local authorities greater control over their affairs, authority for developing their mechanisms and making administrative and financial modifications in order to create municipalities with greater independence and strategic vision.

On October 06th of 2010, the Local Administration Ministry and the EU mission to Syria celebrated finishing the Municipal Administration Modernization project (MAM) and launching decentralism and local development program which is considered the second phase of the (MAM) program with a budget of €22.5 million on four years.

On 24/8/2011, the legislative decree number (107) was issued. This decree consists of a local administration law which aims to implement decentralism of authorities and responsibilities, to be centralized instead into the hands of the people and to ease procedures of providing services to the citizens in addition to reinforcing incomes of the administrative units, and reinforcing the role of surveillance through official and domestic surveillance. (2)

Changes on public sector level

Like most of the governmental sectors in Syria today, the Ministry of Culture is not politically active. Instead, it follows superior political instructions to support and promote the mechanism of “confronting the conspiracy/crisis” this not a new role for the ministry but it became more acute after the recent political instability

The effort paid by the ministry in contribution to creating the cover up image (of a normal life) was clear. Thus, the cultural movement was constricted to local and regional activities. (It covers a few regions that are not facing a political movement) including usual artistic activities, despite the fact that there are no audiences. The main focus was on activities dedicated to children, book printing, holding cultural nights, and honoring some cultural figures. In other words, the cultural movement has come down to activists whose political preferences match the regime’s orientation in this period. The ministry has also participated shyly in the cultural events of the countries that are still friends with the political regime in Syria. Trying to observe the ministry’s efforts in having agreements, whether new or as old as three years, we haven’t found any new ones, and those signed back in 2010 are either dead or frozen.

Moreover, the changes of decision makers in the ministry and its main departments are many and frequent with no subjection to any standard. One of the most important changes was changing the minister; in 2012 Dr. Lubana Mushawah was nominated after Dr. Riyad Esmat, and will be in office until succeeded in 2014 by Mr. Issam Khalil, who will be in charge of the Ministry of Culture’s portfolio. Mr. Khalil received his degree in law from Damascus University and is a member of the Union of Arab Writers, Syndicate of Lawyers, and has been a member of the People’s Council in a legislative role since 2012. The changes also involved directors of several directorates and organizations that belong to the ministry. It's worth mentioning that the management of Al Arayis theater/ Theaters and Music directorate was handed to Mr. Mahmoud Othman in 2012 instead of Mr. Ziki Cordelo who had been arrested by the security authorities at some time in the same year because of the people’s movement. This obviously proves to us that the ministry hadn't tried to take any action or stand up for its employees. Instead, it sometimes carried out procedures against them, not taking action when employees and cultural activists were taken by security and investigated. Also, choosing to be silent about security arresting employees from organizations and directorates belonging to the ministry, and dismissing them for reasons not related to their jobs. As an example; in July 2012, The General Institution of Cinema in Syria (the only official body in charge of cinema production and distribution) issued a sentence dismissing three Syrian cinema directors for "being absent more than 15 days without giving an excuse" according to the ruling. This dismissal sentence was considered highly politicized according to art societies and circles because the directors were known to stand by the people’s movement in Syria and oppose the regime. This caused a lot of cultural activists and figures opposed to the regime to leave Syria for various destinations and use their arts, mixed with their bitter experiences, to organize various cultural activities and enlighten the public opinion to what’s currently happening in Syria, and get support for the Syrian revolution against the regime’s oppression. As a result, poetry and singing nights were held along with plays and films – some of which participated in international festivals. They also founded TV channels, radio stations, magazines and newspapers.

Cultural activists who are still remaining in Syria have been divided into three categories. The first category is considered pro-regime and they work with the regime’s official cultural institutions and under its commands. The second one is small and considered neutral and they try to work under very difficult circumstances to be able to remain existing. The third category is anti-regime and with whom the cultural authorities have abolished their relationship. There is a clear intention not to hire opponent artists in the Ministry of Culture or Information as well as giving direct commands to private sector companies to boycott them and prevent them from participating in its productions. It’s worth mentioning here that some from the third category have contributed along with young activists in all Syrian governorates to create an alternative informational and cultural body, despite harsh conditions. We have noticed many local newspapers and websites covering political and social events in addition to some artistic activities, although they’re few.

The Syrian official cultural sector did not witness changes of deep and direct impact with regard to public policies and approaches[5] since the establishment of the Ministry of Culture in the 1950s[6], because the legal and administrative regulations that organize cultural activities remain unchanged and still working according to the regulations it was established according to. However, observers of cultural life in Syria can sense slow and irregular changes on government level. These changes are bonded to the changed priorities of official rhetoric and to openness on the outside world, also the independent local sector and international organizations are considered important tools to achieve and push forward these changes.

The beneficiary of these changes at the time being is not the Ministry of Culture, due to its contradiction with its operation mechanism, at the same time, the independent sector, due to the disunity the individual nature of the independent and civil institutions in Syria, which prevents it from forming an existing force parallel to the official sector, and that keeps every institution be confined to its own individual resources and projects.

Changes in the role of the Ministry of Culture

The independent sector is growing and its impact on Syria's cultural life is increasing, in parallel to the continuity of the power and resistance of the Ministry of culture role as a regulator of the cultural work in Syria with the limited support the Ministry of culture providing to the independent sector. The existence of two poles (even with unbalanced weights) will necessarily push for a number of measures driven by the key question: how to transform the role of the Ministry of Culture?

These transformations may be identified by examining a number of examples, from which we present two examples:

Damascus Capital of Arab Culture 2008:

On Jan 10, 2007 President Bashar Al-Assad issued a decree to form a secretary-general board to be in charge of "Damascus Capital of Arab Culture 2008 Celebration". This board is linked with the Prime Ministry and consists of one secretary-general and several members. The said presidential decree named the secretary-general of the Celebration and the Board chairperson; accordingly the following tasks were assigned to the Board:

  • Providing the general guidance for the method and mechanism of presenting Damascus as capital of Arab culture.

  • Providing the legislative and organizational cover for the working teams through coordination with the concerned ministries and public agencies and institutions involved in these activities.

  • Proposing the provision of technical and financial support by the competent authorities to insure effective execution of the Celebration.

  • Adaptation of the Celebration's lines of action.

  • General supervision of the accurate achievement of the intended celebration message.

  • Proposition of the working team’s structure.

The decree also stipulates that the funds earmarked from the Ministry's budget and the government donations, in addition to contributions and aids provided by other parties shall be put in a fund created for that purpose. The Celebration's secretary-general shall be the treasurer and pay master of this fund in order to provide all the necessary requirements to render success to the Celebration without being bounded by the laws and regulations in force.[7]

The key question that went through the minds of all people involved in culture in Syria is why the Ministry of Culture and Damascus Governorate were excluded from running and organizing the Celebration? Despite that they possess all the necessary infrastructures and human resources to implement the Celebration's activities? And despite their ability to cooperate with the other government bodies to mobilize all available resources, and why the Celebration's secretary-general was given spending powers without being obliged to observe the laws and regulations in force?

Analyzing these indicators is takes a long time, but they certainly raise questions about the Ministry's role and the vision of the highest authorities of its ability to work within the laws, regulations and mechanism in force.

Proposed modifications on the bylaws of the Ministry's directorates of culture

The slow changes in the Ministry's role may be traced through the partial measures taken by many government institutions. One of the important examples is the proposed amendment of the bylaw of the Directorate of Theaters and Music, being one of the Ministry's big directorates, this Directorate is currently drafting a new bylaw that reflects its vision of its own role in the theatrical and musical life in Syria.

One of the clear strategies set by the modifications is being able to supervise the independent sector by setting up a number of sections and subsections to oversee the activities of independent troupes and musical bands and groups and keep an eye on their work out of the notion that the Ministry of Culture should supervise any cultural initiative or activity, which will preserve its central role of the Ministry.

These measures are not to be considered a substantial modification on the essential role of the Directorate of Theaters and Music, since its bylaw describe clearly its role in supervising and coordinating with the independent parties, but setting special directorates for this concern, reflects hidden pressure felt by the Directorate of Theaters and Music.

Marking that the Ministry of Culture (through its infrastructure and the legal and financial facilities granted and high potentials of co-operation with the other governmental institutions) forms a target of support, all institutions of private sector aims to it in order to involve the Ministry of Culture as a partner in its activities, inorder to benefit of the necessary facilities. But the control assures that the Ministry is providing its support on selective and unclear basis bounded to official directions or ministerial order.

Changes in  the cultural work mechanisms

The image of the governmental cultural sector generally seemed to be stable and heavy in structure, and after the people’s movement eruption in March 2011, it has turned into the "spokesperson" of the ruling regime confronting the so-called “the universal conspiracy on Syria” ,which opened the doors wide to the critics who condemned this role for the this sector in a unprecedented rhythm  In 2011, cultural assemblies or civil movement assembliesincreased in the Syrian scene. Those assemblies used cultural expression forms, and crossed the limits of the censorship and the previous work mechanisms characterized with difficulties(which now considered traditional) like laws and regulations, or financial resources. Despite the fact that it has been about three years since the foundation of some of those assemblies, they’re still considered to be in a creation phase, suffering from weak institutional structure and needs experience and knowledge. Some institutions have adapted to the rapid changes in the Syrian situation by ignoring all forms of censorship and laws. Others work with mere instant visions which threaten their persistence because their vision, message, and therefore persistence are connected with an instant political situation - no matter how long it takes. As a conclusion, we can’t observe precise and clear scientific changes in the work mechanism of the recent cultural institutions in Syria.

Opposite to the stability of the governmental sector and its heavy structure, we find a mobile private sector, with light structure, which doesn’t necessarily  lead to say that the non-governmental institutions have easier mobility since they are not subject to the observation laws, and its weak and non-continuous  finance. But the Syrian private sector and due to its novelty and exterior unfold in search for the necessary funds, is based on modern concepts in cultural management, which clearly and directly affect the cultural atmosphere in Syria, one of the key effects is the emergence of new cultural professions that are yet to be adopted by the government sector such as cultural management, cultural marketing, cultural promotion, etc..., these professions gradually increase the number of practicing persons which changes the map and orientation of individuals and institutions.

These changes are reflecting on the national concept of culture (resistance culture, Pan-Arabism culture, culture as a tool to develop Pan-Arab awareness and as a socioeconomic development tool) and also on the main features of Syrian culture (one-pole central culture and appreciation of Syrian cultural product).

Finally it should be noted that the impact of the independent sector on the government sector cannot be scientifically measured due to the lack of serious measures that allow the development to be monitored and analyzed. This reading depends on individual observation of cultural life and work mechanisms in this field.




[2] Appendix : 10th FYP matrix in the cultural sector

[3] Organization structure No.1

[4] Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, Tartous and Der Ezzor.

[5] Despite the establishment of important infrastructures such as Al-Assad House for Culture and Arts (Opera House), Al-Assad Library and increasing number of cultural centers in many governorates.

[6] Syrian intellectuals in general believe that the Ministry has deteriorated after Dr. Najah Al-Attar stepped down as Minister of Culture. The late President Hafez Al-Assad appointed Dr. Al-Attar Minister of Culture in 1976 and she remained in that position until the beginning of 2000 when she stepped down as a result of the cabinet reshuffle order by the late President three months before is death.

[7] Pursuant to which government bodies act.


Chapter published: 06-05-2016