Syria/ 3.4 International cultural co-operation  

3.4.1 Overview of main structures and trends

The international cooperation relations are always related to the political orientation and the external political relations of the concerned country. In Syria, it is noted that most cooperation agreements are associated with direct presidential instructions, thus political relations affect in a very direct way the cultural cooperation and constitute the main framework and  a regulator governs the bilateral agreements signed by Syria.

For example, since Bashar Al Assad took power in 2000, strong political relations had been built with Turkey. This pushed officials, in charge of cultural policies, to encourage relations with Turkey, starting from organizing tourist trips to importing all sorts of Turkish products including Turkish TV series for show, sale and dubbing purposes. This created  a competition with the Syrian drama series’ in Syria and in the Arab society as well. It’s important to notice that Syrian maps had used to show the Iskenderun province as a Syrian occupied region until 1998 when a military dispute was about to erupt. Then, a political treaty was established in Adana and an agreement to which both sides agreed to postpone the Iskenderun’s issue to the future. Syrian sources have denied any abandonment of the province and rather announced to put disputed issues aside for the Syrian benefit and look forward to the economic, political cooperation with Turkey. Despite the announcement, some circles in Syria did not stop demanding for it. After the movement in Syria started in 2011, Syria put the province back on the map and hinted its demand for it.

National (Arab) dimension of the cultural cooperation

The official cultural speech has a clear Pan-Arab dimension, of the clearest examples what was mentioned in the interview with the current Minister of Culture in occasion of opening the third festival for comedic theater on 26.03.2009: “I see that there is nothing named with "The Syrian Culture", I see something called "Arab Culture". That’s why you find me possessed by the obsessions of the Arab writers from Tangier to Salala. I don’t only care about the Syrian inventors production, I everyday readthe Egyptians, Yemenis, Moroccans and the GSS countries writers production because we all fall in the same ocean, and drink from the same spring which is the Genuine Arab Culture. And because we are all concerned with the Pan-Arab intellect and the spreading of the resistance culture, the limits of our cultural aims are beyond the political geographic space”.

The decision makers Pan-Arab political speech in the cultural sector is not translated through cooperation agreements and treaties with Arab countries, since we cannot sense a clear policy in terms of Syrian-Arab cultural relationship, despite of a variety of Arab cultural organizations and committees within the framework of the Arab League[1], but they had no impact on Syrian cultural life previously. Currently, Syria’s membership in the Arab League was suspended on 12/11/2011 and the seat was given to the Opposition and Revolution Forces Coalition on 1/4/2013. The key Arab League cultural bodies are:

The Arab League Education, Culture and Science Organization (ALESCO) is an organization caring for the preservation of Arab culture. It was established as a specialized system associated to the Arab League on 02.07.1970 to develop education, culture, and sciences in the Arab countries, to draft comprehensive strategies, and assist in their implementation, so that all educational, cultural and scientific systems  were subjoined to it. Tunisia is the permanent residence of this organization. The organization also oversees several institutes and centers, including: Arab Manuscripts Institute, Arab Center for Arabization, and Institute of Arab Studies and Research. At the beginning of the current year the committee in charge of laying down the organization’s future plan (2017 – 2022) finalized its strategy, the third medium term plan (for six years) published by ALECSO since 2005. Maintaining Arab material and non-material culture and finding functional ways to preserve heritage from being wiped out and disappearing is a prominent topic in light of current changes in priorities of the organization’s work. The reality of public education in the Arab world and its development are also currently one of the organization’s priorities. It must be noted that the Arab program for improving quality of education falls within the framework of implementing the plan for development of education in the Arab world, which was endorsed by the Arab Summit (Damascus, 2008). In addition, in April 2014 a Memorandum of Understanding between ALESCO and the International Council for Museums (ICOM) was signed.[2]

The Permanent Committee for Arab Culture is a subsidiary of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization in charge of preparing the annual meeting of Arab ministers of culture. In its meeting in Cairo at the end of 2011, the committee complemented Syria on joining “the easing of cultural production transfer treaty.”  This treaty was approved in the general conference of ALESCO held, in its ninth period, in Tunisia from 19 to 22/12/1987. It stated that Arab countries should work on easing the transfer of Arab cultural production (whether inside the Arab states or outside) by all means.As some are as follows:

  • Exempt the transfer and the materials used in the production from customs fees.
  • Grant it the priority in transportation between Arab states.
  • Provide it with low transportation fees that don’t exceed 25% of what’s imposed on other materials.

International dimension of cultural cooperation

All cultural agreements between Syria and  the countries of the world are endorsed by the President and a presidential decree is issued for each agreement, such as Decree 281 of the year 2004 which endorses the bilateral cultural cooperation agreement with Qatar. Each agreement is endorsed by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture. Based on the document signed between the two parties, the Ministry of Culture supervises the implementation of its terms.

In the following, some of the agreements that were signed in the past few years:

In 2008, Syria signed UNESCO’s agreement on protecting cultural diversity. Since the agreement asks each country, as a condition, to hand in a report observing the country’s achievements and the steps taken to preserve the cultural diversity every four years, the Ministry of Culture made the report and sent it to UNESCO in 2012.

In 2009, an agreement was signed between the Ministry of High Education and UNESCO in the building of the ministry with the attendance of the Japanese ambassador to Damascus. This agreement includes financial support with $113 thousand worth of scholarships for Golan students studying in Syrian universities.

Syria and Lebanon signed 18 agreements, memorandums of understanding, and cooperation protocols for the years 2010, 2011, and 2012 at the end of the Continuation and Coordination Commission meeting between the two countries held in Damascus on 18/7/2010. Three of the memorandums were concerning culture, tourism, and education.

On 9/8/2014 the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) posted on its website a statement from the Ambassador of Syria in Lebanon, Ali Abdel Karim, who stressed the importance of implementing the bilateral agreements signed between the two countries, especially in relation to anti-terrorist coordination. The Ambassadors’ statement did not mention previous agreements concerning tourism, culture and education.

Thirteen executive programs, cooperation attestations, memorandums of understanding and protocols were signed between Syria and Yemen in Sana'a on 8/8/2010. One of the executive programs was for cultural cooperation and another for educational purposes for the years 2010, 2011, and 2012.

On 16/5/2010, the Executive Program for the Tourist Cooperation Agreement and the Executive Program for the Cultural and Artistic Cooperation Agreement were signed between Syria and Kuwait for the years 2010, 2011, and 2012 along with many other agreements signed by the two countries.

In 2012, Russian sources explained that Syria and Russia were intending to open cultural centers in Damascus and Moscow. The sources confirmed that the Russian government endorsed an agreement draft prepared by the Foreign Affairs Ministry which would be valid for five years and could be renewable for another five years. Meanwhile, at the time of updating this research, we haven’t noticed any practical steps taken.

Based on the statement made by Mohammad Kanaan, Director of Arab and International Relations at the Syrian Ministry of Economy, on 1 September 2014 at the meeting held between the Ministry of Economy and Trade and the representative of the Russian Embassy in Syria, Andrey Tchurkin stated that ‘there will be a meeting of the Russian-Syrian Joint Committee at the end of the current month where several topics on cooperation will be discussed and a cooperation protocol will be laid out in addition to implementing cooperative agreements previously signed’[3].

Also, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency’s website post, dated 11/6/2014, ‘to confirm the growth of cultural and educational relations between the two countries, the Ministry of Education has decided to include the Russian language in school curricula as of the next academic year, wherein seventh grade students would be able to choose between studying Russian and French as a second language.’

On 23/3/2014 the website of the Syrian Ministry of Education posted a statement from Minister of Education “Hazwan al-Wazz” saying that the Ministry has completed a book for seventh grade students, to be ready in April 2014 in time with the end of educational qualification courses for teachers. According to the same source, the Director of the Russian Cultural Center in Syria, Vyachislav Ovsyankin, has promised to provide the necessary support to open the Russian language teaching division at the Damascus University.

It is interesting to note that it has not been possible to follow up on the fate or stages of the implementation of these agreements, or whether any of their stages have indeed been completed, which indicates that most of these agreements have been frozen under the current circumstances in Syria.

It’s worth mentioning that there was no capability of tracking those agreements or their execution stages nor knowing if any of their stages had been achieved. This indicates that those agreements are frozen due to the current situation in Syria.

Some agreements involve several ministries in their activity domain, such as the cultural and educational cooperation program between the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the government of the United States of Mexico for the years 2007-2010 signed in Damascus on 23.07.2007 as a step to implement the Cultural and Educational Cooperation Agreement signed between the two countries in Damascus on 26.04.2004.

The program was signed by the Deputy Minister of Education and the Director of General Administration of Cultural Affairs/Foreign Ministry/United States of Mexico. The program activities include three ministries: Ministry of Education, Ministry of Higher Education and Ministry of Culture, where every ministry implements the terms related to its field of work separately.

It worth mentioning that the activities of foreign cultural centers in Syria are divided into two types: activities designed according to the programs, goals and policies of these centers, approved by the Ministry of Culture based on its regulations, and activities related to the bilateral cooperation agreements between Syria and any other country.

Reading the documents signed between Syria and other countries, a number of issues has to be mentioned:

  • International cultural cooperation relations are not based on a strategic vision.
  • International cultural cooperation relations are accidental, not accumulative, they happen as a result of a political event (official visits, occasions, political stance supportive to the Syrian policy… etc.).
  • International cultural cooperation relations are not based on local needs but according to projects put forward by foreign sides.
  • International cultural touristic cooperation relations, aim to show the heritage and art of each party without meaningful activities in terms of cultural exchange and research.
  • International cultural cooperation relations, since it is restricted to the framework of  the government cooperation, therefore they consolidate the official culture in Syria and the partner country, away from the other aspects of the cultural life in the either of  countries.

Currently and due to the security situation deteriorating state and international resolutions, we should mention the reflections of the Syrian crisis on the foreign cultural centers available in Syria:

The American School wasestablished in Damascus in 1957, to provide its services to diplomats, people, and residents of the hosting country. It was closed on 22/1/2012, and its closure due to overlapped political and security reasons was officially announced on 07/02/2012. The reason cited in the official statement was: “the incapability of Damascus in providing sufficient security  and protection for the embassy and its surroundings.”

The British Council began work in Syria in 1942, and its last official activity was participation at graduation of the first cohort of students in 2012 from the Department of Environmental Sciences at Damascus University, which was set up in 2007-2008 in collaboration with the University of Manchester in the UK.[4]  Language lessons had stopped since the uprising in 2011 but the administrative body was still running. Most of the British employees left and the Council has recently been closed. A number of the Council’s administrative members left to Beirut to finish work on some files. The British Council continued to support and fund a number of cultural and artistic activities in a limited way, whether in theater or in visual arts some of which were done inside or outside Syria. Recently, the council has decided that any funding it offers, should not be for any activities inside Syria.

The French Cultural Center opened in Damascus in 1977.Although it usually closes every year in August as an official holiday,in 2011 it closed in July, anticipating its usual annual holiday. According to the official version, the decision for early closure was taken based on the two incidents in which efforts were paid by pro-regime demonstrators to storm into the French embassy when things got out of control. As a result, the center was set to close for the 2012 school year. Later, the center continued to support some cultural projects in addition to finishing some unresolved business. It also supported some artistic workshops inside Syria targeted children and teenagers, especially those affected by the crisis. In March 2012, the embassy was totally closed after the killing of two French journalists in the Baba Amr district of Homs.

The Spanish Cultural Center: it remained open in the first few months of the crisis for Spanish language students, as well as holding artistic and cultural events normally. However, the center was suddenly and entirely shut, and the language courses stopped in February 2012. The center’s cultural and artistic activities were reduced to film showing, lectures and abstract art exhibitions. The contents of all the activities were not related with the Syrian crisis or the Arab Spring in general.

The German Cultural Center (Goethe Institute) was established in 1955.  On 10/10/2011, the Goethe Institute’s administration in Syria announced the closure of the center in both Damascus and Aleppo “until further notice” for reasons described as “out of our desire.”  They continued, “The decision of closing the center is due to the current situation in Syria and it was taken directly by the administration in Munich without consulting us in Syria.”

The Danish Institute was established in Damascus in 1997 after an agreement was signed between the Syrian Ministry of Culture and the Danish Ministry of Education and Culture. Theagreement leased the 500 year old Beit al-Aqad in the old souk of Damascus for the Danish Cultural Center for a period of 50 years. On 16/5/2012, the Syrian regime asked the institute’s administrator -Andres Hastrub- to leave the country. The deportation decision was issued when the institute’s administrator had already been in Denmark since the beginning of April because of the temporary closure of the institute due to the “security state deteriorating in Syria.” Hastrub commented on the deportation decision, “Maybe because we have tried to arrange a number of small events and activities which we got permission for from the specialized authorities, but because of the security situation we had to change them and arrange other alternative activities which seemingly some considered offensive.”

The Russian Cultural Center: it was open in Damascus in 1974. Its name in the beginning was the Soviet Cultural Center and continued to be known so until the nineties when the Soviet Union collapsed. The name was then changed to the Russian Cultural Center. It provides Russian language lessons as well as granting scholarships for Syrian students who want to study in Russia. It also arranges a lot of cultural and artistic activities. Although the Russian authorities evacuated many Russian citizens in 2012 because of the crisis in Syria, the center was still operating.

In March 2013 the Center’s director left Damascus, and in December 2013 the Center closed its doors to visitors due to the increase of fighting within the country, according to the Russia Today website.

On 10/2/2014, the Russian bureau ‘Rus Sotrudnichestvo’ - whose work is concerned with expatriates and the Directorate General for Humanitarian Cooperation operating around the world - announced that they would stop their work in Syria. Its new representative Vyachislav Ovsyankin headed to Damascus on Sunday 9 February  2014. [5]

[1]           Syria is one of the six founding members of the Arab League (established 22 March 1945). The Alexandria Protocol which led to the formation of the Arab League is the main document on the basis of which the Arab League charter is based on.


Chapter published: 06-05-2016