Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Controvery over American school and cultural center in Damascus is nothing new

Syria’s ordered closure of the Damascus Community School (a.k.a. the “American School) and the American Cultural Center in Damascus is only the latest episode in a bizarre campaign by the Syrian government against US interests in Syria over the last two years.

In the summer of 2007 – following high profile visits by Democratic legislators to Damascus that spring and meetings between Sec of State Rice and her counterpart, Walid Mouallem – the Syrian embassy in Washington ironically denied visas to American teachers employed at the DCS. The school was only able to open after the foreign ministry in Damascus intervened to issue the visas following extensive lobbying by US Charge d’affaires Michael Corbin.

Then last summer, as relations seemed to be improving following the Doha Agreement in Lebanon and the launch of indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel, the Syrian Ministry of Education suddenly refused to accredit DCS – a school that has existed in Syria for decades. Its student body includes the sons and daughters of diplomats, oil executives (from Shell and Total), and others.

The cultural center's reported closure (diplomats in Damascus tell me its still operating) not only hinders recently enlivened US public diplomacy out of the facility, but also effectively shuts down US educational outreach in the country. In November 2006, the Syrian government closed the offices of Amideast, an American NGO headed by former US Ambassador to Syria Ted Kattouf that has offered SAT and other standardized testing services in Syria since 1974. The Syrian government declined to give a reason for shutting Amideast's doors.

After a few months testing services were moved into the American Cultural Center in Damascus, allowing educational services to resume. If the center is closed, students will once again have to go to Lebanon or Jordan to take their entrance exams.

In the weeks leading up to the raid, two US Fulbright students were abruptly deported from Syria without a clear reason, other than that their visas could not be extended for "Security reasons."

What’s mind-boggling about the closures is that they actually hit Americans who are actively working to engage Syria the hardest. According to reports, the State Department (which operates the embassy in Damascus) is reconsidering its Syria policy. The closures are certainly not going to help the case for engagement with Damascus no matter who wins on November 4.

No comments: