Students in front line of anti-Assad protests

Up to a quarter of the fatalities in protests in Syria since they began in March 2011 have been students, according to the Union of Syrian Free Students, USFS.

It has launched a campaign of civil disobedience in higher education institutions, calling on the country’s 800,000 students to support the year-long anti-government uprising.

In a declaration posted on the social networking site Facebook on 8 February, the union said action would include demonstrations, general strikes in universities and a boycott of companies supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The union has called for international support.

A USFS spokesperson told University World News: “Higher education organisations and universities in the world must put pressure on their governments to carry out [their] moral and legal responsibility to protect Syrian people."

The spokesperson added that 6,000 lives had been lost since March 2011, and "about 25% of them are students".

As a first step to implementing the USFS action plan, about 2,500 students at Aleppo University staged an anti-regime protest inside and around the campus. The students were confronted by security forces leading to many arrests, according to a 21 February Facebook statement by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In video footage posted on YouTube, Syrian student protesters started by chanting slogans during a demonstration against al-Assad at Aleppo University, which is in Syria’s second city.

Protesters flew a green, white and black flag of 'independence' inside the university. Female students also gathered at the university to protest against the regime and in solidarity with besieged cities.

In response, military reinforcements were sent to Aleppo University along with security forces and Shabiha, men in plain clothes acting on behalf of the regime, who used knives and batons as well as firing tear gas and shooting to quell the protest.

Regime forces arrested a number of students. Some students had their clothes ripped off and others were reportedly beaten and assaulted.

Tension has risen in Aleppo, a commercial hub, in the wake of car bombings earlier this month that killed at least 28 people.

Formed last September, USFS says it will work with free Syrian students and with the other revolutionary groups, unions and committees to build a civil state that has a democratic and pluralistic system to ensure freedom, justice and equality for all citizens

USFS’s action plan calls for strikes entailing non-attendance of theoretical and practical lectures in the second semester of the current academic year. It urges ‘free students’ to turn universities into places for peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins.

It also calls on USFS members to demonstrate and to work with other student unions to put more pressure on the regime to prevent crimes against humanity being committed.

According to the Syrian Uprising 2011 Information Centre, the Aleppo students have been at the forefront of the protest movement in the city. In recent days, despite the raids and arrests and threats of expulsion, they have continued to protest on an almost daily basis.

A Union of Free Syrian Professors (UFSP) organisation has also been formed and it issued a statement on 24 January outlining its goals and ways to support a Syrian revolution.

UFSP says it will work with academics not only to campaign against the regime but also to achieve a restructuring of Syrian universities, turning them into beacons of science, justice and freedom in line with international standards and purging them of the presence of Syrian intelligence and security forces, and corruption.