Syria Today: Diplomatic vs. Military Responses

Students learn more about the current conflict in Syria, and consider different points of view about how the U.S. should respond.  


Students will:

  • Share what they know about Syria
  • Read an article about the conflict in Syria today
  • Listen to different statements regarding Syria and decide what they think about them and why 

Social and Emotional Skills

  • active listening
  • sharing and listening to different perspectives
  • exploring negotiation and diplomacy versus violence in conflict situations

Materials needed

  • today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • chart paper for listing questions 
  • tape



Syria has been in the news a lot in recent weeks.  Ask students in pairs to share what they know about Syria and why it's been in the news.  After a few minutes ask students to share out in the larger group what they discussed in their pairs.
Elicit and explain that Syria is a country located in a region of the world that we in the West call the Middle East.  Officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic, it is a country with a religiously and ethically diverse population. Over the past two and half years, Syrians have been embroiled in a brutal conflict, with the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and his regime fighting those seeking to oust him.  
These past few weeks Syria has been in the headlines because of a chemical weapons attack on August 21 that killed many civilians, including women and children on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.   The international response to this attack, and to the Syrian conflict in general, will be the focus of today's lesson. 

Check Agenda and Objectives


Ask students to read the following background on the Syrian conflict. 

Current Syria Conflict: A Short Background

The conflict in Syria started in March of 2011, when protests erupted against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Dara'a, a small city in the south of the country.  A group of the town's teenage boys, inspired by the Arab Spring that was sweeping the region, had tagged their school walls with anti-Assad slogans.

The boys' arrest and torture sparked widespread nonviolent protests in Dara'a that were met with violence by the country's security forces. The government put Dara'a under siege as the anti-Assad sentiment, anger and demonstrations spread. Following these events, tens of thousands of people from around Syria took to the streets, chanting "Dara'a is Syria" while demanding freedom, democracy and the end of corruption. These demonstrations were also met with violence from Syrian security forces, which claimed the lives of more and more civilians.

Soon, armed groups with a range of political and religious outlooks joined the opposition. Young Syrians who had made their homes in surrounding countries, Europe and North America returned to their homeland to fight. 

But it's not just people of Syrian heritage who are signing up. Young Saudis, with tacit support from their government, are taking up arms against the Assad regime, while extremist groups around the region and beyond have been urging Muslim youth to join the fight in Syria.  These include a growing number of "jihadists" (that is, those fighting in the name of their Muslim faith). According to an article published in Al Arabiya on June 13, 2013, "the number of jihadists in Syria will [soon] be a lot more than the number we've witnessed in the past 20 years in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia." The U.S., meanwhile, has leant support to what it considers a more "moderate" opposition group called the Free Syrian Army. 
Events in Syria became major U.S. news on August 21, when the Syrian regime allegedly launched a chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus.  Many innocent men, women and children were killed. 
President Obama had warned the Syrian regime a little over a year ago that to use chemical weapons in their civil war would be crossing a red line.  "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation," he said back then. 
The chemical weapons attack has been the focus of the international community since then.  After two-and-a-half years of standing on the sidelines of this increasingly brutal conflict, Secretary of State John Kerry doubled down on President Obama's red line and threatened to respond with air strikes on Syria. But many Americans expressed opposition to such a strike and concern about what effect it would have. The Russians, who are long-time supporters of the Assad regime, stepped in and put a diplomatic solution on the table to counter the American threat of violence. President Obama took Russia up on its idea and initiated negotiations aimed at eliminating Syria's chemical weapons through diplomatic means.  

Whatever diplomatic agreement comes out of these negotiations, the war in Syria is likely to continue, and the people of Syria will continue to suffer greatly as a result of the violence.  Already, over six million people have left their homes in search of safety and refuge. That number includes four million who are internally displaced within Syria, and two million who have left the country altogether. (Please see our TeachableMoment lesson on Syrian refugees.)  


Consider the following debrief questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this article?
  • What questions do you have about the article? 
  • What other questions did this bring up for you about the situation in Syria today? 

List questions that cannot be answered on the board to return to later in the lesson.

Human Barometer

In the Human Barometer activity students respond to a series of statements by placing themselves physically along a continuum that runs from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."  Although people often think that things are either right or wrong, good or bad, there is usually a range of opinions in between.  Because we all have different life experiences and have often been exposed to different information, our opinions tend to vary greatly.  This activity explores different perspectives and opinions represented in your classroom.
To prepare this activity, post one sign saying "STRONGLY AGREE" on one side of the class room and another saying "STRONGLY DISAGREE" on the other side.  Move the desks to the edges of the classroom to create a space for students to stand between the two extremes of the continuum.  If you like, you can use masking tape to create a line on the floor between the two signs to create a visual of the continuum.
When introducing the activity, instruct students to place themselves along the continuum between the two signs, according to how much they agree or disagree with the statement you'll read to them (see below).  Encourage students to take a real stand and not be in the middle of the room too often. 
Stress that you'll be asking for opinions and a rationale for those opinions; there are no right or wrong answers.  Encourage students to take a risk—when their opinion varies from others in the room, ask them to take a stand anyway, then explain why they believe what they do.  This will allow everyone to gain a deeper understanding of the issues being explored today.
Read the first statement and ask students to move to the place in the room that represents their current point of view most accurately. Then ask students to look around the room to see where other students have positioned themselves.  Ask some volunteers to explain why they chose their spot on the continuum.  Elicit a range of opinions and rationales before moving on to the next statement, beginning with opinions from the majority group then moving to the less popular opinions in the room. 

  • The US should intervene in Syria to support the people of Syria, who have suffered for too long under the brutal Assad regime.
  • Violence is more effective than diplomacy and negotiation.
  • The US should provide the rebels with weapons to fight the Assad regime themselves.
  • President Obama looked weak when he threatened to use force against the Assad regime, then backed down when a diplomatic solution became a possibility.
  • When human rights abuses happen in other parts of the world, it is none of our business.  We have enough to deal with at home.
  • Human rights abuses should be addressed by international organizations like the United Nations, with support from the US and others.

While students are still standing, ask them to consider another statement, made by the new leader of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani was asked whether he thought Obama looked weak when he backed off his threat of air strikes against Syria to enforce his "red line" against chemical weapons. (Note that Iran has been a close ally to the Syrian regime.) Rouhani replied, "We consider war a weakness.  Any government or administration that decides to wage a war, we consider a weakness.  And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect to peace."

  • Ask students if they agree with Rouhani's statement that "War is a weakness," and to arrange themselves along the continuum.  Then ask students to explain their thoughts.

Now tell students that in an op-ed in the New York Times, Russian president Vladimir Putin, also a close ally of the Assad government in Syria, said:

"There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated [several groups] ..., fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. ... 
Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all."

Ask students to arrange themselves in response to Putin's argument:

  • We should not arm the Syrian opposition by providing arms because this is likely to strengthen terrorist organizations that pose a threat to all.

Now ask students to arrange themselves  according to this statement by Putin:

  • "It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States."

Reiterate that both Rouhani of Iran and Putin of Russia are siding with the Syrian regime in the conflict we've been discussing today, whereas the American government has sided with one of the opposition groups, the Free Syrian Army. In some ways then, the leaders of Iran and Russia can be seen as standing on the other side from the U.S. government in this conflict.
Ask students to arrange themselves according to the following thought:

  • Even when you're on opposite sides of a conflict, it's possible to find agreement (at least on some points).



Before wrapping up your lessons, make sure to assign students different outstanding questions on the list you created earlier in the lesson.
Some questions the class might also  consider going forward: 

  • What are the alternatives to US military action or complete inaction in Syria? 
  • What role might the United Nations or other organizations play in the Syrian conflict - or other complex conflicts that involve human rights? 
  • What has the UN's role in Syria been so far? What limits and obstacles does the UN face in Syria? What problems does it face as an institution?


Ask some volunteers to share what stood out to them about today's lesson - it can be something they learned, something that surprised them, something they enjoyed about the lesson, or something they didn't enjoy.