Schools were attacked in numerous locations. By early 2013, up to 1,000 schools had allegedly been used as detention or torture centres and 2,445 were reported damaged or destroyed, although it is not known how many were targeted. Attacks on universities caused very heavy casualties.1531
Tensions rose in Syria beginning in March 2011. Some of the first protests were sparked by the arrest and torture of 15 boys who painted revolutionary slogans on their school wall. After security forces killed several protesters, more took to the streets, calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.1532 By July 2011, hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating across the country.1533 Security forces clamped down, targeting specific groups, including schoolchildren and students. During 2011 and 2012, the government gradually lost control of parts of the country to the Free Syrian Army and other groups including the Al-Nusra Front. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, continuing conflict had left more than 125,000 people dead by December 2013.1534 Bombings, killings, targeted attacks, arbitrary arrests, torture, abductions and sexual violence led to large-scale displacement of people and an unfolding humanitarian disaster.1535
Education was hit hard by the war. Net primary enrolment in 2011, the year the conflict began, was 93 per cent,1536 net secondary enrolment was 68 per cent,1537 gross tertiary enrolment was 26 per cent1538 and adult literacy was 84 per cent.1539 The UN reported in April 2013 that an estimated 2,445 of the country’s 22,000 schools were damaged or destroyed and 1,889 were being used as IDP shelters instead of for educational purposes.1540 Some 69 of 118 UNRWA schools for Palestinian refugees were also closed.1541 A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, based in London, said 450 schools had been completely destroyed.1542 By September 2013, almost two million children aged 6 to 15 had dropped out of school because of conflict and displacement.1543
The Assad regime kept tight control over the education system. The Ba’ath party had a security unit monitoring student activities at every university. Students had no right to form an association, join a protest or speak out in public; and university appointments were controlled by the Ba’ath party.1544 The Syrian government prevented teachers from expressing ideas contrary to government policy and prohibited the teaching of the Kurdish language.1545
Attacks on schools
In reports by media and human rights sources, including video evidence and eyewitness accounts of individual attacks on schools, details were given of at least 10 incidents of schools being destroyed or partially destroyed in attacks in 2012.1546 The schools were attacked by forces on both sides of the conflict,1547 with some being hit by rockets and others by shelling or air strikes. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria (15 July 2012 to 15 January 2013) documented government attacks on more than 17 schools in its 5 February 2013 report and noted that in some cases anti-government forces were present at the schools at the time of attack.1548
Although it is hard to determine from reports how many of the destroyed and damaged schools were specifically targeted, there is evidence that some were deliberately attacked. The UN reported that government forces looted and set fire to schools on several occasions in 2011 in retribution for student protests.1549 Human Rights Watch reported in mid-2013 that Syrian armed forces launched ground and air attacks on schools that were not being used by combatants. It said that Syrian forces fired on schools while classes were going on inside them, using automatic weapons and tanks, and Syrian fighter jets and helicopters dropped bombs and incendiary weapons on school buildings when no opposition forces were in or near them, according to witnesses.1550
In its 2013 report Safe no more: Students and schools under attack in Syria, Human Rights Watch reported that one 14-year-old girl called Salma and fellow students in Dael, Daraa governorate, hid under their desks for protection when a tank entered their school and sprayed the walls with machine gun fire in an incident which took place between 19 July and 18 August 2012. Video footage viewed by arms experts at Human Rights Watch appeared to support her account of the attack. A soldier who defected from the Syrian army reported that he saw a plane and a tank attack Shaba’a High School in the suburbs of Damascus on the first day of the school year in September 2012, causing serious damage and injuring students. Human Rights Watch also documented an airstrike in Al-Bab, Aleppo governorate, on 4 November 2012, in which four bombs struck the school while it was hosting a civilian council, killing the head of the council. Another witness reported that seven bombs dropped by MiG fighters hit the playground in Ghaleb Radi school, Quseir, Homs governorate, on 3 December 2012, releasing white smoke. Video footage suggested they were incendiary bombs.1551
Attacks on school students, teachers and other education personnel
Schoolchildren were frequently killed when schools were targeted for attack or were damaged as a result of collateral damage: in 2012, nine were killed in their schoolyard in an alleged cluster bomb attack on Deir al-Asafir,1552 and nine students and a teacher were killed in a mortar attack on Al-Batiha school, Damascus for example.1553
Students were arrested, detained, tortured and killed for their participation in protests that took place in schools.1554 Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces entered schools in Daraa, Homs and the Damascus suburbs to collect intelligence on students and their families, or they employed school staff to conduct interrogations.1555 Security forces and pro-government militias used excessive force and even gunfire against peaceful demonstrations at three schools, according to Human Rights Watch.1556
The UN received information that in May 2012 government forces allegedly raided the local primary school in As Safira, Aleppo governorate, taking hostage 30 boys and 25 girls between 10 and 13 years of age. The forces used the children as human shields by walking them in front of their forces to clear out a local Free Syrian Army unit that had recently gained control of the town.1557
UN figures suggest that by the end of February 2013, a total of 167 education personnel, including 69 teachers, were reported to have been killed, although it is not clear how many were targeted for attack.1558
Military use of schools
Numerous incidents were reported of government forces, including the Syrian Armed Forces, the intelligence forces and the Shabbiha militia, using schools either as temporary bases, military staging grounds, sniper posts or detention and interrogation facilities.1559 The Syrian Network for Human Rights alleged in early 2013 that government forces had turned approximately 1,000 schools into detention and torture centres and used schools to house security and intelligence personnel or as positions from which to shell the surrounding area.1560
The opposition Free Syrian Army also used schools in a number of areas as bases, makeshift hospitals and detention centres, as well as for ammunition storage.1561 For example, the UN reported that Free Syrian Army elements in Idlib governorate used two classrooms of the Al Shahid Wahid Al Jusef High School as barracks for a number of days when children were in class.1562 Human Rights Watch – which documented military use by forces on both sides – reported that opposition groups used schools for barracks and command posts and that government forces attacked schools because they had been taken over by the opposition forces.1563 Similarly, a newspaper article alleged that a school was bombed by rebels in 2012 because it was being used as a base by security forces and pro-government militia.1564
Attacks on higher education
State security forces killed students in raids on universities and student protests. Three higher education students were killed, 21 injured and 130 arrested during a raid of student dormitories by security forces at Damascus University in June 2011 after students refused to participate in pro-government rallies.1565 Another student was killed during an attack by security forces on a protest at Damascus University in April 2011.1566 In May 2012, four students were killed, 28 injured and 200 arrested during a raid at Aleppo University in which teargas and bullets were fired at protesters by security forces.1567
Four academics were assassinated in one week in Homs in September 2011, with responsibility for the killings unattributed.1568 By October 2011, the number of scholars assassinated in targeted attacks by security forces was 10, mostly from Homs, according to the opposition.1569
Attacks on education in 2013
As the conflict between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups continued into 2013, attacks persisted against Syrian schools and universities, their students and staff. Schools were affected by aerial attacks,1570 car bombs1571 and missile strikes,1572 often with high numbers of victims. In September, an incendiary bomb was dropped on the playground of the Iqraa Institute Secondary School, Aleppo province, killing 10 pupils and at least one teacher and causing severe burns to 19 more students.1573 Later that month, a fuel-air bomb landed on a high school in Raqqa killing 15 civilians, of whom 14 were students and one was the school janitor.1574 It has not been verified whether the schools were the intended targets in either of these two attacks.
In higher education, two of the country’s most prestigious universities were hit by multiple explosions. Two explosions killed at least 82 and wounded dozens more, possibly as many as 150,1575 at Aleppo University on the first day of mid-term examinations in January.1576 Students and university staff were believed to be among the dead.1577 The rebels blamed a government air strike; the government said rebels had attacked with rockets.1578 A mortar shell hit the café of Damascus University’s engineering campus on 28 March, killing at least 10 students and wounding 20.1579 The government and rebels blamed each other.
1531 This profile covers attacks on schools in 2009-2012, with an additional section on 2013.
1532 “Syria: Origins of The Uprising,” BBC News, 8 June 2012.
1533 “Syria : The story of the conflict,” BBC News, 13 June 2013.
1534 Erika Solomon, “Syria death toll hits nearly 126,000: monitoring group,” Reuters, 2 December 2013.
1535 International Rescue Committee (IRC), Syria: A regional crisis (New York: IRC, January 2013), 2.
1536 The World Bank, “School enrollment – primary (% net),” The World Bank Data (2011).
1537 The World Bank, “School enrollment – secondary (% net),” The World Bank Data (2011).
1538 UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “Education (all levels) Profile – Syrian Arab Republic,” UIS Statistics in Brief (2011).
1540 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA),“Humanitarian Bulletin - Syria,” Issue 22, 19 March - 8 April 2012, 3; and “Syrian Crisis Depriving Hundreds of Thousands of Children of Education, UNICEF Warns,” UN News Centre, 5 March 2013.
1541 UNSC, Children and Armed Conflict: Report of the Secretary-General, A/67/845–S/2013/245, 15 May 2013, para 15.
1542 The Syrian Network for Human Rights, “A Report on the Destruction of Schools and Its Consequences,” accessed 17 January 2013.
1543 Kristin Taylor, “For Syrian children, education needs are urgent, and urgently underfunded,” UNICEF, 24 September 2013.
1544 Brendan O’Malley, “Academics Facing Death for Their Ideas,” University World News, 9 October 2011.
1545 See, for example, US Department of State, 2009 Country Report on Human Rights Practices – Syria (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 11 March 2010).
1546 “Armenian Church and School Attacked in Syria,” Asbarez.com, 22 May 2012; “Daara planes bomb school,” You Tube Video, 25 July 2012, , as cited in HRW, Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria (New York: HRW,6 June 2013), 21; “School and Surrounding Homes Destroyed in Aerial Bombardment,” You Tube Video, posted by SNN Shaam English News, 8 September 2012; HRW, Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria (New York: HRW, 6 June 2013), 21-24; “Syria rebels bomb ‘school’ in Damascus,” BBC News, 25 September 2012; Jill Langlois, “Syria rebels bomb school in Damascus,” Global Post, 25 September 2012; Ruth Sherlock, “Syrian Cluster Bomb Attack ‘Kills Several Children’,” The Telegraph, 26 November 2012; and Martin Chulov, “Palestinians Flee to Lebanon after Jet Bombs Syria’s Largest Refugee Camp,” The Guardian, 18 December 2012.
1547 “Armenian Church and School Attacked in Syria,” Asbarez.com, 22 May 2012; Jill Langlois, “Syria Rebels Bomb School in Damascus,” Global Post, 25 September 2012; “Girls’ High School Targeted in Regime Shelling,” You Tube Video, posted by SNN Shaam English News, 9 October 2012; “School Destroyed in Shelling,” You Tube Video, Posted by SNN Shaam English News, 15 November 2012; Ruth Sherlock, “Syrian Cluster Bomb Attack ‘Kills Several Children’,” The Telegraph, 26 November 2012; and Martin Chulov, “Palestinians Flee to Lebanon after Jet Bombs Syria’s Largest Refugee Camp,” The Guardian, 18 December 2012.
1548 OHCHR, Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, A/HRC/22/59, 5 February 2013, para 114.
1549 UNSC, Children and Armed Conflict: Report of the Secretary-General, A/66/782–S/2012/261, 26 April 2012.
1550 HRW, Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria (New York: HRW, 6 June 2013), 1-2.
1551 Ibid., 22-24.
1552 Ruth Sherlock, “Syrian Cluster Bomb Attack ‘Kills Several Children’,” The Telegraph, 26 November 2012.
1553 AP, “Syria Says 10 Dead in Mortar Attack on School,” Jordan Times, 4 December 2012.
1554 Nour Ali, “Syrian Boy, 11, Shot Dead as Protest Breaks Out on First Day of Term,” The Guardian, 18 September 2011; and Michael Everard, “Schools under Siege in Syria,” Transnational Crisis Project, 25 November 2011.
1555 HRW, Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria (New York: HRW, 6 June 2013), 16-19.
1557 UNSC, Children and Armed Conflict: Report of the Secretary-General, A/67/845–S/2013/245, 15 May 2013, para 155.
1558 Ibid., para 157.
1559 UNSC, Children and Armed Conflict: Report of the Secretary-General, A/66/782–S/2012/261, 26 April 2012, para 125; and UNSC, Children and Armed Conflict: Report of the Secretary-General, A/67/845–S/2013/245, 15 May 2013, para 158; and HRW, Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria (New York: HRW, 6 June 2013), 25-26.
1560 The Syrian Network for Human Rights, “A Report on the Destruction of Schools and Its Consequences,” accessed 17 January 2013.
1561 UNSC, Children and Armed Conflict: Report of the Secretary-General, A/67/845–S/2013/245, 15 May 2013, para 158.
1563 HRW, Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria (New York: HRW, 6 June 2013), 26-27.
1564 Jill Langlois, “Syria Rebels Bomb School in Damascus,” Global Post, 25 September 2012.
1565 Roula Hajjar and Borzou Daragahi, “Syrian Forces Raid Dorms; 3 Students Killed,” Los Angeles Times, 22 June 2011.
1566 “Student Killed after Syria Forces Attack Damascus University Protest,” Haaretz, 11 April 2011.
1567 Wagdy Sawahel, “Aleppo Students Killed, Injured in Campus Attacks, ”University World News, 4 May 2012.
1568 Zeina Karam, “Syria: Aws Khalil Is Fourth Academic Assassinated Within Week,” Huffington Post, 28 September 2011.
1569 Brendan O’Malley, “Academics Facing Death for Their Ideas,” University World News, 9 October 2011.
1570 UN Human Rights Council, Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 16 August, 2013, para 195, Ian Pannell, “Syria: Agony of victims of ‘napalm-like’ school bombing,” BBC News, 30 September 2013; and HRW, “Syria: Fuel-Air Bombs Strike School,” 1 October 2013.
1571 Richard Spencer and Magdy Samaan, “Syria: Bomb kills 50 as children leave school in Damascus,” The Telegraph, 21 February 2013.
1572 UNSC, Children and Armed Conflict: Report of the Secretary-General, A/67/845–S/2013/245, 15 May 2013, para 158; HRW, Attacks on Ghouta: Analysis of alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria (New York: HRW, 2013), 8.
1573 Ian Pannell (correspondent) and Darren Conway (cameraman, producer),“Saving Syria’s Children,” BBC Panorama, 30 September 2013. See also an article written by a doctor interviewed in the documentary: Saleyha Ahsan, “An English doctor in Syria: Pity the children - the horror I saw,” The Independent, 29 September 2013; and Ian Pannell, “Syria: Agony of victims of ‘napalm-like’ school bombing,” BBC News, 30 September 2013.
1574 Syrian Network for Human Rights, “Shelling universities and schools: Shelling the educational building of commercial high school in Raqqa Governorate – Date of Incident: 29/9/2013”; HRW, “Syria: Fuel-Air Bombs Strike School - Powerful Conventional Weapon Kills at Least 12 Students in Raqqa,” 1October 2013; and “At least 16 dead as Syrian school hit in air strike: activists,” Reuters, 29 September 2013.
1575 “Syria crisis: Dozens killed by Aleppo university blasts,” BBC, 15 January 2013.
1576 “Syria crisis: Dozens killed by Aleppo university blasts,” BBC, 15 January2013; and Mariam Karouny, “Explosions kill 83 at Syrian university as exams begin,” Reuters, 15 January 2013.
1577 Jim Miller III, “International Higher Education Protection Organizations Condemn Attack on Syrian University,” Institute of International Education, 17 January 2013.
1578 Mariam Karouny, “Explosions kill 83 at Syrian university as exams begin,” Reuters, 15 January 2013; and “Syria crisis: Dozens killed by Aleppo university blasts,” BBC, 15 January 2013.
1579 Albert Aji, “Mortar attacks kill students in cafeteria at Syria’s Damascus University,” Associated Press, 28 March 2013; AP and Anne Barnard, “Syria’s War Invades a Campus That Acted as a Sanctuary,” New York Times, 28 March 2013.