Scholarships (instead of bombing runs): Germany aims to become cultural reference point number one for Syria

Screen shot from DAAD scholarship web page

Germanforeignpolicy, December 18, 2015

Translated from German by Tom Winter, December 21, 2015

BERLIN / DAMASCUS (special report) – With large-scale scholarship programs, the Federal Government is seeking to bind the future elite of a postwar Syria to Germany. 

Already last year, the Foreign Ministry, under the title “Leadership for Syria,” began bringing more than 200 selected Syrian students into the Federal Republic to retrain them specifically in “governance”, organizational structure, and the like, in addition to studying. 

The program, which is implemented by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and counts as its biggest ever overseas program, is avowedly to prepare “a selected elite* future Syrian leadership staff” for the “shaping” of Syria after an end to the war. It assures the Federal Republic of broad channels of influence in Damascus of the coming decades. In addition, Berlin strives to select students out from the refugees coming into Germany and to integrate them into its aspirations of influence. Thus, the Federal Republic is emerging as a future reference-point number one for Syrian elites in Europe.

A Selected Elite*
The program “Leadership for Syria” was launched by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in the fall of 2014. It openly aims at preparing “a select elite future Syrian leadership staff,” to decisively shape “the future Syria socially, politically, scientifically and economically.” 

For this, the DAAD has, with the support of the Foreign Ministry, 200 university scholarships to be awarded to Syrians who either lived in Syria or in the immediate neighboring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey) or had fled to Germany. Other scholarships are financed by the federal states of Baden-Wuerttemberg (50) and North Rhine-Westphalia (21).

In addition to an introductory language course, the scholarships of the federal government and North Rhine-Westphalia include a mandatory accompanying program for the Syrian elites in “basic and applicable knowledge and skills in political science, economics, social sciences, and commerce.” 

In order to ensure that the scholarship holders actually bring their newly acquired skills into Syria as soon as possible, the DAAD has requested in their application a precise description of how they intend to “help rebuild the country with their academic knowledge and their academic skills after the end of the conflict.”

Bridge Builders
Berlin leaves no doubt that its scholarships for Syrians — who otherwise would have no prospects because of the war — are ultimately for its own advantage. “We wish for you an active role as a bridge builder,” said DAAD Secretary General Dorothea Ruland, speaking to the present Syrian scholars, at a conference the Foreign Ministry held on 24 November. The future “bridge builders” between Germany and the postwar Syria discussed measures to rebuild their widely devastated country with various German political leaders. 

“We need a lot of hands and heads, when eventually the country stands up once more,” noted Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a speech to the conferees. Some fellows, expressed that they felt “now quite incorporated into German society.” The hope of Berlin is that part of the Syrian young elites will develop close ties with the Federal Republic and in the future, as “bridge builders” between the two countries, open influence-channels between the two countries for Germany.

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One Sixth Are Students
It is foreseeable that this effect will be strengthened by the stream of Syrian refugees still flowing mainly to Germany.”Leadership for Syria” has encountered an immense echo in Syria itself and among Syrian refugees in neighboring countries; the DAAD reported 5,000 applications from often desperate candidates, of which only a minimal part won a scholarship and with it, the chance to win an attractive future. 

The UN refugee agency confirmed last week that comparatively many students are among the fleeing Syrians who want to transfer from the Turkish coast to Greek islands and then continue traveling mostly to the Federal Republic; in a sample of the UNHCR, 16 percent were students, while half of the refugees said that they had previously been students. 

“Leadership for Syria” scholarship holders repeatedly report that they participate intensively in the support for refugees headed to Germany from their country. Some describe how they met family members in German refugee camps – or even former fellow students who were unable to take advantage of “Leadership for Syria” and are now attempting the flight to Germany on their own.

Elite Networks
The federal government has meanwhile reinforced their outreach efforts to refugees who bring sufficient qualifications for university studies, especially from Syria. In the coming year there will be new scholarships for Syrian students. In addition, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research has announced that it will spend about 100 million euros to promote college-capable refugees in the next few years, 27 million euros in 2016. 

In contrast to diplomas from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Eritrea, a high school diploma from Syria is fully equivalent to one from Germany, according to an expert from the DAAD. And a Syrian refugee who has one, if their German is up to it, can be admitted for a university degree. 

This is completely a different matter from the question of how many refugees, after their schooling is complete, will actually be available for the anticipated reconstruction in a future peaceful Syria. The Syrian academics remaining in Germany, with their connections to their former country will constitute a new element in German-Syrian elite networks, that Berlin can build on politically.

Reference Point Number One

For Germany, the program might actually mean becoming the dominant destination country for the future Syrian elites. In many countries in the Arab world the former colonial- or mandate-powers are the European reference point in terms of education; this is usually closely associated with exclusive cultural and political influence. 

An extreme example is Algeria: more than 85 percent of its students go to French universities, according to data of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). British universities reported, for example, six times as many students from Iraq as their German competitors. 

Up to now, nowhere in the Arab world is the Federal Republic destination-country number one. In the case of Syria, France with 2,012 was clearly ahead of Germany with 1,570 (UIS). But lately, the ratio has been reversed: According to UNESCO, the number of Syrian students in France has dropped (1446) and lies behind those in the Federal Republic (1577). 

The new scholarship programs, in connection with its popularity as an escape destination country, are clearly moving Germany into the foreground from the perspective of the Syrian elites. Thus Berlin could, in the case of Syria, achieve what was the the reserve of the former colonial and mandate powers in Europe: cultural reference point number one for the “establishment” of a country of the Arab world.

*Your retired Latin prof translator is quite amused at “eine ausgewählte Elite.” The “elite” are those “selected out,” so the German means “a select select.”

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