Contemporary Syria, since its inception, has not once witnessed official recognition of the Kurdish language, with its use constantly banned in the official domain and even in the public sphere. The successive Syrian governments have forbidden Kurdish communities to open institutes or centers to teach their language. Worse yet, they persecuted and arrested those who tried to teach Kurdish or issued prints using it. The only exception came during the French Mandate (1920-1946) when the French authorities allowed Kurdish intellectuals to publish periodicals in Kurdish.
With the evacuation of the French forces, the Arab nationalist ideology established its dominance over the Syrian landscape and maintained hegemony as it proceeded with projects to melt into its pot the different nationalities existing in Syria. To this end, Arab nationalists deployed constitutions the governments adopted over a series of military coups and later by the government of the United Arab Republic (UAR) of Syria and Egypt.
The policy of “forced assimilation” peaked in the aftermath of the 1963 coup d’état, led and celebrated by a group of officers affiliated with the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party (hereinafter Ba’ath Party) as Thawrat al-Thamen min Athar (March 8th Revolution). In the following years, the Ba’ath Party, the ruling party, inscribed its ideology into several articles of the 1973 Constitution. The extent of the incorporation of the Ba’athist mind-set in that constitution is evident especially in Article 1, which includes several “Arab nationalist” terms, such as “the state of the Federation of the Arab Republics,” “the Syrian Arab Republic,” “the Syrian Arab country,” “the Arab homeland,” and “the Arab nation.”
With the decades-long stress on the Arab identity and language, the first time that educational bodies managed to develop Kurdish curricula was after the sweeping March 2011 protests and the subsequent withdrawal of the government of Syria (GOS) from areas that are Kurdish-majority or have large Kurdish populations. The administrative entities of the GOS no longer operated in Afrin, Kobanî (Ayn al-Arab), and al-Hasakah in the summer of 2012, which then became under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
In 2014, the PYD established the Autonomous Administration, which is a federal governing regional body hinged on a self-issued social contract. Under the contract, the administration declared Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac as the three official languages in its areas of governance and especially in the Afrin region, while guaranteeing the right of the various ethnic communities in the region to learn their original languages. Next, the administration rolled out two versions of the school curricula, one in Kurdish for Kurdish students and another in Arabic for Arab students. However, the administration faced harsh criticism for some of the ideas it included in the curricula. Detractors accused it of propagandizing some of the school materials to indoctrinate students with the ideas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, the Afrin region was soon to see another set of curricula. In March 2018, the Turkish military and affiliated Syrian armed opposition groups launched Operation Olive Branch into Afrin and ultimately controlled it. Afterward, the Ministry of Education of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG)—an offshoot of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), developed its curricula. The ministry also changed school hours assigned to subjects, dedicating four hours to Turkish and four to Kurdish. Nevertheless, the ministry then cut the Kurdish language hours down to half, allowing for two hours only and, in some cases, one, while several schools dropped the subject altogether on the pretext of lacking Kurdish language teachers.
In tandem, Turkey and the ministry imposed the Turkish language on Syrian Kurds and Arabs who fled hostilities in their areas and sought refuge in the Afrin region. Additionally, they used the Turkish language course books to promote Turkish nationalist and religious figures and personalities, who are alien to the Syrian cultural and social environments.
Notably, Turkey’s middling with education in the region did not stop at the limits of the curricula and passed into the administrative sphere. The authorities of the Turkish occupation issued a decree signed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan under Additional Article 30 of the Higher Education Institutions Regulation Law No. 2809 and Additional Article 39 of the Higher Education Law No. 2547. The decree established a Turkish Ministry of Education in Afrin city and attached it to the Gaziantep University. Nevertheless, the decree did not provide for initiating a Department of Kurdish Literature, which could have supplemented schools with needed academically trained teachers.
Today, Kurdish is a secondary language. While it ranks fourth after Arabic, Turkish, and English in terms of class hours, it remains an elective and non-credited class in middle and high schools. The status of the Kurdish language is ironic. Turkish, the language of the occupation, supersedes Kurdish, the language of native communities, with the former gaining superiority through class hours, quality of teachers, scientific status attributed to it, and applicability towards higher degrees within the territories of the Syrian State.
Notably, the policies geared towards marginalizing the Kurdish language—while triggering sentiments of injustice within Kurdish communities, are reminiscent of decades of discrimination. Simultaneous with the systemic denial of their linguistic rights, Kurds continue to experience daily discrimination and harassment for speaking their language by teachers or IDPs.
In this paper, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) presents two sets of information. First, STJ includes data collected through monitoring and documentation efforts of the methods and dynamics governing the Kurdish language instruction in the Afrin region. Second, STJ provides the accounts obtained through 10 extensive interviews with students, parents, administrative staffers currently in Afrin, and IDPs from the Afrin region who fled their homes to areas in Northeastern Syria but continue to contact the locals who remained in Afrin almost daily.
To carry out interviews, STJ designed targeted interview forms, each containing questions relevant to the cluster of interviewees met. STJ conducted most of the interviews online from late December 2021 to the second half of 2022.
Notably, STJ will withhold the real names and positions of the interviewees at their request for fear of persecution by the factions controlling their areas and potential arrest on charges of affiliation with or working for the Autonomous Administration.
In terms of structure, STJ has divided the paper into five sections. The first section provides an overview of the three curricula imposed on Afrin’s locals—previously the curricula of the GOS and the Autonomous Administration and presently the SIG’s, which are mixed and include materials from Turkish curricula. The second section sheds light on the status of the Kurdish language in the Afrin region and the roles political and military forces play in sustaining it. The third section delves into the policy of Turkification Turkey is enforcing in the region. The fourth section discusses the impact of learning in mother tongue on children, particularly on students in the early stages of education. In its fifth and final section, the paper approaches linguistic policies successive Syrian governments have been applying since the inception of Syria.
The ongoing conflict continues to wreak havoc on the education system in Syria. Since 2011, numerous schools and educational facilities have been documented as out of service because they were either destroyed in hostilities or repurposed and used as makeshift housing centers for IDPs or military headquarters for armed groups. Staff shortages also continue to affect the quality of education adversely because several staffers are internally displaced or have fled the country altogether.
In addition to war-damaged resources, the educational system in areas with Kurdish populations, particularly in the Afrin region, has been critically shaken by rapid governance changes. In less than ten years, the Afrin region has had at least three administrations, each with a different ideology often mainstreamed through education with no regard for the rights of the students.
Notably, there are no official figures about the exact number of school or university students from the Afrin region who lost many years of schooling due to the turbulent administrative shifts. Kurdish students remain deprived of education under the control of Turkey and affiliated armed groups, struggling with deliberate educational neglect—especially denial of access to instruction in their mother language.
Educational neglect became rife in the region following Operation Olive Branch on 18 March 2018, which, according to Amnesty International, led to Turkey’s occupation of Afrin, held by several Turkey-backed armed opposition groups today. In the wake of the incursion, SIG-affiliated local councils replaced the Kurdish curricula with ones that prioritize Arabic and Turkish as equally primary languages while assigning limited class hours to Kurdish language instruction for Kurdish students. The SIG opted for these curricula ignoring that the Afrin region was a Kurdish-majority area, with Kurds making up over 90% of the population before the occupation.
The curricula changes have presented the Afrin students with massive challenges. Many students struggle with understanding SIG-dictated course materials since they are not well-versed in Arabic. These students do not speak or write Arabic efficiently after being taught all-Kurdish curricula in previous years.
4. The Afrin Region
Afrin is one of Syria’s Kurdish-majority regions, located in the northwestern parts of the country and administratively affiliated with Aleppo province. In addition to Muslim Kurds, the region is home to Yazidi and Alawite Kurdish communities.
The population count of the Afrin region changed dramatically over the course of the conflict. Estimations of the region’s pre-conflict population indicate that Afrin was home to a maximum of 200,000 persons.  Afrin’s population hit over twice that figure during the war, as the region received between 200,000 and 300,000 IDPs from other Syrian territories.
Like locals in other Syrian areas, Afrin’s residents partook in protests against the GOS. With the growing opposition, the GOS gradually retreated from the area, which in 2013 was controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—that Turkey deems an extension to the PKK. In January 2014, the Afrin region became one of the three counties the Autonomous Administration governs.
Notably, during the PYD’s reign, Afrin was a safe destination for a large number of IDPs who fled extensive hostilities in areas such as Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Raqqa. Many of these IDPS also relocated their businesses, small soap and clothing factories, to the region from Aleppo. However, the situation changed when Turkey announced Operation Olive Branch on 20 January 2018.
The battles for Afrin began in early 2018 after negotiations between Russia and the YPG failed because the latter refused to remove its forces from the region and surrender it to the GOS forces. In response, Russia withdrew its small military base near Kafr Janneh village to Tall Rifat city on 19 January 2018. The base relocation was Russia’s greenlight to Turkey to proceed with the incursion.
Turkey established control over the Afrin region after two months of fierce battles. Notably, the ensuing Russia-Turkey understanding about the Afrin region caused the complete collapse of the “de-escalation” agreement, to which Turkey was a guarantor State within the context of the Astana Process. The onset of Turkey’s incursion went parallel to the large-scale land grabs the GOS started in Eastern Ghouta, one of the regions included in the de-escalation agreement.
The incursion had devastating effects on the Afrin region. The Turkish operation did not only change the population count, but it also critically transformed its demographics. A 2019 census by the Afrin City Local Council shows that 23,964 families live in the region, only 35% of whom are local Kurds and members of Arab tribes. The remaining families are IDPS, 35% of whom are from Damascus and its countryside, 13% from Aleppo, 5% from Homs, 3% from Deir ez-Zor, and 9% from various other Syrian territories.
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 “Turkish University Offering Education in Northern Syria”, Anadolu Agency, 25 November 2019. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/education/turkish-university-offering-education-in-northern-syria/1654838
 “Syria at War: Eight Years On”, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, 2020. Document coded E/ESCWA/CL 3.SEP/2020/TOP.5, p. 29.
Also see: “UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore: Briefing to the Security Council on the situation for children in Syria”, UNICEF, February 2020.
Also see: Abed Rabbo, Shurouq. “Problems of Syrian Education under the Crisis: Elementary Stage as a Model” (In Arabic), graduation project from the Syrian International Academy for Training and Development, p. 11.
Also See: “Schools in Syria Map – E7”, ACU, 2022.
 “Syria: Turkey must stop serious violations by allied groups and its own forces in Afrin”, Amnesty International, 2 August 2018.
 “Actual Percentage of Arabs in Afrin, Syrian Kurdistan, is Less Than 2%” (in Arabic), Rudaw, 18 November 2017.
Also see: Al-Kate’, Muhannad, “The Human Geography of Kurds in Syria” (in Arabic), Our Syria, 13 November 2021.
 “Killing Mother Tongues as a form of the Continued Cultural Genocide in Syria”, STJ, 22 February 2021. https://stj-sy.org/en/killing-mother-tongues-as-a-form-of-the-continued-cultural-genocide/
 The Afrin region includes seven towns: Bulbul, Rajo, Sharran, Maabatli/Mabeta, Shaykh Al Hadid (Şiyê), and Jindires, in addition to the city center of Afrin. According to unofficial statistics, the population of Afrin is estimated at 800,000 people. A large segment of Afrin’s Kurds lives in the Ashrafiyeh and Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhoods in Aleppo. Only 9,000 Arabs reside in the region, making up less than 2% of Afrin’s population.
Also see: “Actual Percentage of Arabs in Afrin, Syrian Kurdistan, is Less Than 2%” (in Arabic), Rudaw, 18 November 2017.
Also see: “Demographics of Syria” (In Arabic), Heritage for Peace. http://www.heritageforpeace.org/syria-country-information/geography/?lang=ar
 “Syrian Arab Republic – Population Statistics”, the figures include population numbers and demographic indicators from the 2004 census:
 “Demographic Change in Afrin” (in Arabic), VDC, 17 July 2019. https://vdc-nsy.com/archives/20694
Also see: Interactive map of Syrian areas, showing population displacement and return movements in northern Syria, August 2022.
 “De-escalation Zones in Syria: Where and How?” (In Arabic), Aljazeera, 4 May 2017. https://www.aljazeera.net/encyclopedia/2017/5/4/%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%82-%D8%AE%D9%81%D8%B6-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%AA%D8%B1-%D8%A8%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D8%A3%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%88%D9%83%D9%8A%D9%81
 AL-HILU, Khayrallah. “Afrin under Turkish control : political, economic and social transformations,” Middle East Directions (MED), Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria, 2019/10 – http://hdl.handle.net/1814/63745
 “Only 35% of the Afrin Population is Indigenous” (in Arabic), AlModon, 17 April 2019. https://www.almodon.com/arabworld/2019/4/17/%D8%B9%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%86%D8%B3%D8%A8%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B5%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%8A%D9%86-35
Also see: Interactive map of Syrian areas, showing population displacement and return movements in northern Syria, August 2022.