BERLIN/DAMASCUS (Own report) – With impressive scholarship programs, the German government seeks to establish firm ties to the future elite of post-war Syria. Already last year the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to bring more than 200 selected Syrian students to Germany, within the “Leadership for Syria” program, to be instructed – alongside their academic studies – in advanced training in “governance,” organizational setup and similar courses. The program run by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) – the largest foreign program the organization has ever undertaken – has the declared objective of preparing “a select elite among Syria’s future leadership” for “active participation in organizing” post-war Syria. This assures Germany a wide range of channels for influence in Damascus over the next few decades. Berlin is also making efforts to sift out students from among the refugees arriving in Germany to be included in its efforts to gain influence. This would crystallize into Germany’s becoming the Syrian elite’s top European point of reference.
A Selected Elite
The “Leadership for Syria” program was launched by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in the fall of 2014, with the declared objective of preparing “a selected elite of Syria’s future leadership personnel” for “playing a major role in helping to form Syria’s social, political, academic, and economic future.” Therefore, the DAAD has awarded, with the support of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 200 university scholarships to Syrians, who were either still living in Syria or in one of the bordering countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey), or who had fled to Germany. Other scholarships were financed by the German states Baden Wurttemberg (50), and North Rhine Westphalia (21). Alongside an introductory language course, the federal and the North Rhine Westphalian scholarships include a concomitant obligatory program “teaching” the future Syrian elite “fundamental and practical knowledge and skills in political sciences, economics, social sciences, as well as operational competence.” To insure that the scholarship recipients will really use their newly acquired skills, as soon as possible, in Syria, the DAAD requires already on the application, a precise description of how they – “with [their] academic knowledge and skills – can contribute” … “to rebuild their country after the end of conflict.”
In the meantime, the German government is reinforcing its efforts to filter out refugees, with sufficient qualifications for admission to the university – not only – but particularly Syrians. Next year, a new scholarship for Syrians is supposed to be initiated. The German Ministry of Education and Research has announced it will be earmarking 100 million Euros to support refugees capable of studying at the university, of which 27 million Euros in 2016. A DAAD expert is quoted saying that, unlike Iraqi, Afghan or Eritrean high school diplomas, Syrian diplomas are “indeed compatible with German diplomas.” Whoever has graduated from high school in Syria can – of course, with a knowledge of the language – immediately be admitted to the university in Germany. Regardless of how many refugees eventually will be available to return to undertake the anticipated reconstruction of a pacified Syria, once they have completed their studies, those Syrian academics, who remain in Germany, will, with their ties to their homeland, also constitute a new aspect of the German-Syrian elite network that Berlin can politically rely upon.
Top Country of Reference
Therefore, the opportunity may present itself for Germany to become the predominating country of orientation for Syria’s future elite. In numerous countries of – not only – the Arab World, the former European colonial and mandate powers have remained the point of orientation in questions of education, which usually is linked closely to cultural-political influence. An extreme example is Algeria, where, according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS), more than 85 percent of its students attend universities in France. British universities account, for example, for six times more Iraqi students than their German counterparts. The Federal Republic of Germany has never been the top country of orientation in the Arab World. According to UIS, in 2012, France had a clear lead over Germany with 1,828 Syrian students, as opposed to Germany’s 1,570. In the meantime, the proportions have reversed, with UNESCO registering a drop to 1,446 Syrian students in France, and Germany, 1,577. These new scholarship programs could give Germany – combined with its popularity as country of refuge – a sizable lead, in the eyes of the Syrian elite. This, in Syria’s case, would give Berlin the possibility to achieve what only former colonial and mandate powers have had, become the top country of cultural orientation for the establishment in an Arab World country.