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Why is Syria launching a space program during a civil war?

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This week, as the civil war in Syria entered its fourth year, the government of President Bashar al-Assad announced plans to create the country's first space agency. The state-run SANA news agency did not indicate what kind of projects the Syrian Space Agency will undertake, saying only that they will be "of a scientific and research nature," nor did it specify how much it would cost to start up. The goal, it said, is to use "space technology for exploration and observing the Earth."

But there are doubts about the government's ability to launch a space program in the middle of a civil war that has ravaged Syria's economy and forced many of its best scientists to seek refuge in other countries. More than 140,000 people have been killed since unrest broke out between the Assad regime and various rebel groups in March 2011, and about 2.5 million have fled the country, according to estimates from the United Nations. Peace negotiations between the government and opposition groups ended in deadlock earlier this year, and the violence has shown no signs of letting up.

"Syria's interest may be practical or symbolic."

The war has had a devastating effect on the Syrian economy, as well, eroding the value of the country's currency and shrinking its GDP by 40 percent, according to a UN report published last year. Many factories and other infrastructure have been destroyed or damaged, and oil revenue dramatically declined after rebels seized critical fields.

This week's announcement may be an attempt by government leaders to quell fears over its limping economy; during the same cabinet session, the country's prime minister insisted that Syria's economic situation remains stable and that attempts to stabilize its currency were effective. But a strong economy isn't always a prerequisite for launching a space program. As the Washington Post notes, low-income countries like Nigeria and Ukraine have established space agencies, and emerging powers like China and India have invested heavily in space missions, as well. Not all programs shoot for the moon, either; only 12 out of the roughly 70 space agencies in the world have launch capabilities.

"Syria's interest in a space agency may be practical or symbolic," says Mariel Borowitz, an assistant professor and space policy expert at Georgia Tech. She adds that the program could be used for a wide range of domestic purposes — including satellites for communication and disaster response — or could simply be "a source of prestige" for the country at a time of crisis. And even with Syria's ongoing economic problems, Borowitz notes that it wouldn't be expensive for the country to set up a very small agency, as countries like Ecuador and Portugal have.

Syrian students face "violence, kidnapping, and torture."

Syria's proposed space agency would likely remain small, considering the country's evaporating academic community. Many universities have been destroyed over the course of the war, and professors and students have been either killed or forced to fight with the government or opposition groups. Countless others have fled to refugee camps in Jordan and other neighboring countries, often without the resources needed to continue their education. Human rights activists estimate that some 35,000 students have left the country since the war began.

"Students and scholars are isolated in war-ridden cities or remote villages where schools and universities have been bombed, occupied by military and rebel forces and left as strategic targets of opposing sides of the conflict," says Daniela Kaisth, vice president of the nonprofit Institute of International Education (IIE). The New York-based IIE has in recent years been working to help relocate Syrian professors and researchers to other countries, away from the dangers they face at home.

"Many of the students and scholars we hear from do not have valid passports or permission to leave the country," Kaisth adds. "Those who are able to travel within Syria must navigate hostile checkpoints, and many students and scholars have reported horrific instances of targeted violence, kidnapping, and torture."

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