Should the United States Strike Syria?

September 8, 2013

Students learn background on what is happening in Syria and the debate over a U.S. strike, consider opposing views on the issue, and discuss their own opinions and how they might act on them. 


  • Students will increase their knowledge about what is happening in Syria and the debate over how to respond.
  • Students will read and consider different points of view about whether the U.S. should respond militarily in Syria.
  • Students will consider their own views on this issue, think about what additional information they need to better understand it, and consider how they might act on their views.



Tell students that today we're going to think about whether or not the U.S. should take military action in Syria. 

Ask students to raise their hands if they have been following this issue.  Closely? A little?

Tell students that first we'll read some background on the issue.  Read the following summary aloud, or ask a student or students to read it aloud. 


Should the U.S. Strike Syria?  

Americans are in the midst of debate about this question, following a chemical gas attack on August 21, 2013, that killed hundreds of people on the outskirts of the Syrian capital city of Damascus. 

President Obama and many others believe that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the attack.  The Obama administration is trying to persuade Congress, the American public, and leaders of other countries to support a U.S. attack on Syria aimed at sending a signal to Assad's regime that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. The administration has also said that an attack would aim to weaken the Assad regime.

The President has said that any strike on Syria would be limited (such as a targeted missile attack on military targets) and would not involve sending troops.  However, the administration has not said exactly when or how an attack would be carried out.*    

The administration is seeking Congress's approval for strikes on Syria, but Congress is sharply divided. On September 4, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution that would permit up to 90 days of military action against the Syrian government and would bar the deployment of U.S. combat troops in Syria. It would also require the administration to send lawmakers a plan for a diplomatic solution to end the violence in Syria within 30 days. The committee approved the resolution, though not unanimously. The vote was not along party lines, with some members of both major parties voting both for and against the resolution. Discussion now moves to the full Senate and the House.

Even before the missile attack, many people had been arguing for some intervention by the U.S. in the two-year Syrian civil war, which has by many estimates killed over 100,000 people. The UN's refugee agency says about one third of Syria's pre-war population of 21 million people have fled their homes, either to other countries or safer areas within Syria.  However, most Americans, in the latest polls, oppose U.S. military intervention, including airstrikes, on Syria.** Many people have proposed other, non-military responses to the Syrian civil war and the use of chemical weapons.

The war pits the Baath Party government, led by Bashar al-Assad since 2000, against a diverse amalgam of opposition groups. While Assad and many people in his government and military are Alawite Muslims (a Shiite Muslim group that has long ruled Syria, but is the minority there), the opposition forces include many Sunni Muslims, who make up more than half of the Syrian population. The mostly Sunni opposition to Assad includes both those who want a more democratic and secular Syria, and those who advocate strict Islamic rule. Syria is a diverse country that includes not only Muslims, but many Christians, and some Jews and nonbelievers; as well as people from many ethnic backgrounds, such as Kurds and Turks.

Opposition to a U.S. military intervention in Syria is strong, both within the U.S. and internationally.  After years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Americans do not want their government to enter into yet another complex conflict. The Iraq War began when the Bush administration claimed (falsely, it was later confirmed) that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction," including chemical weapons.  The war created new divisions in Iraq, resulted in many tens of thousands of deaths, and continues today, though the U.S. withdrew its combat troops in 2011.

Many people argue that as in Iraq, a military strike on Syria may have many negative outcomes, and might provoke a response that would worsen the situation.  Some have questioned the evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attack.  A UN investigation of this question has not yet been completed.

Many say the U.S. should not act without authorization from the United Nations. But the UN Security Council has been divided on the question of Syria, with Russia and China vetoing any intervention.  The Obama administration has looked for international allies outside the UN framework. While British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was in favor of joining the U.S. in military action against Syria, the British Parliament overwhelmingly voted against such a move (reflecting public opinion in that country).  However, the French government has said it would support a military strike.

"We cannot turn a blind eye to images like the ones we've seen out of Syria," President Obama argued on September 7. "Failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again; that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons."

However, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon does not think a military strike is the best way to respond to the use of chemical weapons. "We cannot allow impunity in any crime against humanity." However, he said, "a U.S. strike could deepen the divisions within Syria, adding to the humanitarian crisis there. He called on world leaders to "avoid further militarization of the conflict and revitalize the search for a political settlement instead." Said the UN leader: "There is no military solution."
* See Secretary of State John Kerry's statement before Congress arguing for an attack.
** Pew poll on Syrian airstrikes.


After reading the summary ask students:

  • What do you think about President Obama's argument?
  • What do you think about Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's statement?
  • What are the big questions you have about the reading? (Write these on the board for future reference.)


Considering both sides 

Tell students that half the class will read the case for a U.S. strike, which is from a statement by the United States' UN Ambassador, Samantha Power.  The other half will read a statement against a strike, which is from an organization called the International Crisis Group. After we read the statements silently, we'll come together to discuss what we think.

Give half the class Reading 1 below, and half the class Reading 2. 


Reading 1:  Case for a U.S. strike

Excerpts from a speech by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power at the Center for American Progress on September 7, 2013
See the full transcript here:
Every decision to use military force is an excruciatingly difficult one... But let me take a minute to discuss the uniquely monstrous crime that has brought us to this crossroads...
There is something different about chemical warfare that raises the stakes for the United States and raises the stakes for the world. There are many reasons the governments representing 98 percent of the world's population, including all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, agreed to ban chemical weapons. These weapons kill in the most gruesome possible way. They kill indiscriminately. They are incapable of distinguishing between a child and a rebel. And they have the potential to kill massively.
We believe that this one attack in Damascus claimed more than 1,400 lives, far more than even the worst attacks by conventional means in Syria. And we assess that although Assad used more chemical weapons on August 21 than he had before, he has barely put a dent in his enormous stockpile ...
If there are more chemical attacks, we will see an inevitable spike in the flow of refugees on top of the already two million in the region, possibly pushing Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Iraq past their breaking points... And beyond Syria, if a violation of a universal agreement to ban chemical weapons is not met with the meaningful response, other regimes will seek to acquire or use them to protect or extend their power, increasing risks to American troops in the future....
People will draw lessons if the world proves unwilling to enforce the norms against chemical weapons use that we have worked so diligently to construct. And Israel's security is threatened by instability in the region, and its security is enhanced when those who would do it harm know that the United States stands behind its word...
These are just some of the risks of inaction, but many Americans — and some members of Congress — have legitimately focused as well on the risks of action...
Some have asked, given our collective war-weariness, why we cannot use non-military tools to achieve the same end. My answer to this question is: We have exhausted the alternatives.  For more than a year, we have pursued countless policy tools short of military force to try to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons. We have engaged the Syrians directly — and at our request, the Russians, the U.N., and the Iranians sent similar messages — but when scuds and other horrific weapons didn't quell the Syrian rebellion, Assad began using chemical weapons on a small scale multiple times, as the United States concluded in June.
Faced with this growing evidence of several small-scale subsequent attacks, we redoubled our efforts. We backed the U.N. diplomatic process and tried to get the parties back to the negotiating table, recognizing that a political solution is the best way to reduce all forms of threat. We provided more humanitarian assistance. And on chemical weapons specifically, we assembled and went public with compelling and frightening evidence of the regime's use.
We worked with the U.N. to create a group of inspectors and then worked for more than six months to get them access to the country ... We expanded and accelerated our assistance to the Syrian opposition. We supported the U.N. Commission of Inquiry.  Russia, often backed by China, has blocked every relevant action in the Security Council, even mild condemnations of the use of chemical weapons that did ascribe blame to any particular party.
And on August 21, he [Assad] staged the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter-century while U.N. inspectors were sitting on the other side of town.
It is only after the United States pursued these nonmilitary options without achieving the desired results of deterring chemical weapons use that the president concluded that a limited military strike is the only way to prevent Assad from employing chemical weapons as if they are a conventional weapon of war...
But this action should have the effect of reinforcing our larger strategy for addressing the crisis in Syria. By degrading Assad's capacity to deliver chemical weapons, we will also degrade his ability to strike at civilian populations by conventional means.
In addition, this operation, combined with ongoing efforts to upgrade the military capabilities of the moderate opposition, should reduce the regime's faith that they can kill their way to victory. In this instance, the use of limited military force can strengthen our diplomacy and energize the efforts by the U.N. and others to achieve a negotiated settlement to the underlying conflict.


Reading 2: Case against a U.S. strike

Statement on Syria released by the International Crisis Group on September 1, 2013. The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent and resolve deadly conflict, headed by Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
For full statement:

Assuming the U.S. Congress authorizes them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets.
If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people. The administration has cited the need to punish, deter and prevent use of chemical weapons - a defensible goal, though Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict without this prompting much collective action in their defense.

The administration also refers to the need, given President Obama's asserted "redline" against use of chemical weapons, to protect Washington's credibility - again an understandable objective though unlikely to resonate much with Syrians. Quite apart from talk of outrage, deterrence and restoring U.S. credibility, the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people. Whether or not military strikes are ordered, this only can be achieved through imposition of a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition. 
To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool's errand. In a conflict that has settled into a deadly if familiar pattern - and in a region close to boiling point - it inevitably will introduce a powerful element of uncertainty. Consequences almost certainly will be unpredictable. Still, several observations can be made about what it might and might not do:

  • A military attack will not, nor can it, be met with even minimal international consensus; in this sense, the attempt to come up with solid evidence of regime use of chemical weapons, however necessary, also is futile. Given the false pretenses that informed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and, since then, regional and international polarization coupled with the dynamics of the Syrian conflict itself, proof put forward by the U.S. will be insufficient to sway disbelievers and skepticism will be widespread.
  • It might discourage future use of chemical weapons by signaling even harsher punishment in the event of recidivism [using chemical weapons again] - an important achievement in and of itself. Should the regime find itself fighting for its survival, however, that consideration might not weigh heavily. Elements within the opposition also might be tempted to use such weapons and then blame the regime, precisely in order to provoke further U.S. intervention.
  • It could trigger violent escalation within Syria as the regime might exact revenge on rebels and rebel-held areas, while the opposition seeks to seize the opportunity to make its own gains. 
  • Major regional or international escalation (such as retaliatory actions by the regime, Iran or Hezbollah, notably against Israel) is possible but probably not likely given the risks involved, though this could depend on the scope of the strikes.
  • Military action, which the U.S. has stated will not aim at provoking the regime's collapse, might not even have an enduring effect on the balance of power on the ground. Indeed, the regime could register a propaganda victory, claiming it had stood fast against the U.S. and rallying domestic and regional opinion around an anti-Western, anti-imperialist mantra. 

Ultimately, the principal question regarding a possible military strike is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be reenergized in its aftermath. Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible. 
Whether or not the U.S. chooses to launch a military offensive, its responsibility should be to try to optimize chances of a diplomatic breakthrough. This requires a two-fold effort lacking to date: developing a realistic compromise political offer as well as genuinely reaching out to both Russia and Iran in a manner capable of eliciting their interest - rather than investing in a prolonged conflict that has a seemingly bottomless capacity to escalate. 
In this spirit, the U.S. should present - and Syria's allies should seriously and constructively consider - a proposal based on the following elements:

  1. It is imperative to end this war. The escalation, regional instability and international entanglement its persistence unavoidably stimulates serve nobody's interest.
  2. The only exit is political. That requires far-reaching concessions and a lowering of demands from all parties. The sole viable outcome is a compromise that protects the interests of all Syrian constituencies and reflects rather than alters the regional strategic balance;
  3. The Syrian crisis presents an important opportunity to test whether the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran can work together on regional issues to restore stability;
  4. A viable political outcome in Syria cannot be one in which the current leadership remains indefinitely in power but, beyond that, the U.S. can be flexible with regards to timing and specific modalities;
  5. The U.S. is keen to avoid collapse of the Syrian state and the resulting political vacuum. The goal should thus be a transition that builds on existing institutions rather than replaces them. This is true notably with respect to the army;
  6. Priority must be given to ensuring that no component of Syrian society is targeted for retaliation, discrimination or marginalization in the context of a negotiated settlement.

Such a proposal should then form the basis for renewed efforts by Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint United Nations/Arab League envoy, and lead to rapid convening of a Geneva II conference. 

Debate over a possible strike - its wisdom, preferred scope and legitimacy in the absence of UN Security Council approval - has obscured and distracted from what ought to be the overriding international preoccupation: how to revitalize the search for a political settlement. Discussions about its legality aside, any contemplated military action should be judged based on whether it advances that goal or further postpones it. 



Discussion & Action

Ask students who read the Samantha Power excerpt: 

  • What did you think of Power's statement? Did you find it convincing? Why or why not?
  • What were her most compelling points - whether you agree with them or not? 

Write the top responses to the last question on the board.
Now ask students who read the International Crisis Group statement:

  •  What did you think of the statement? Did you find it convincing?  Why or why not?
  • What were the most compelling points - whether you agree with them or not? 

 Write the top responses to the last question on the board.
Ask students: Do you think the points above are the most critical ones in deciding whether or not the U.S. should launch a military strike on Syria? If not, what other points should we consider?  (Write these points down.)
Ask students to reflect on the arguments on the board.  Ask: What questions do we most need answered to help us better understand this issue and what kind of response we support?  

List students' questions on the board. If students are interested and there is time, ask students to research these questions as homework, and continue the discussion the following day using information students have collected.
Ask students for their current response to the following question, with a thumbs up, thumbs down, or to the side:  Do you think the U.S. should take military action in Syria? Tally the responses (yes, no, not sure).
Tell students that this is a time when our opinions - and our actions - matter.  Ask students for their ideas about how they might express their views on this issue - either acting as a group or individually.  Possibilities include:

  • signing online petitions 
  • sending emails to decision-makers, including members of Congress (to find and contact your representatives, go to:
  • researching and writing opinion pieces about the issue for the school paper or other media
  • organizing a teach-in or other school-wide session on the issue
  • connecting with local groups that are organizing on this issue.

If they are interested, work with students to take action on the issue, either collectively or individually.


Ask students to say one thing they take away from today's discussion.