Military force in Syria

As President Obama likely prepares to order an attack on Syria in the next week or less, it seems like a good time to think about the US military and when the use of force is justified.

Here’s the result of a Google search for “Syria Obama” to set the stage for students who might not be paying attention to world news:

syria obama

The use of chemical weapons seems to be the triggering event — the United States does not want to see those weapons used by lots of countries, and if the US does not respond to Syria, it gives a green light to other countries in the world to likewise use chemical weapons.

This article from USA Today, titled Kerry: Syria’s use of chemical weapons ‘undeniable’ is a good overview. Though the article is a little long, it seems accessible to middle schoolers, if they have guidance from a teacher while they read it.

Teachers would need to explain such things as the reference to “Kerry” in the headline — John Kerry is the current Secretary of State; he replaced Hilary Clinton in that position in February of 2013 — and would unpack other elements of the story with students as well.

The gist of what’s happening is that the United States is preparing to attack Syria because the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people.

So let’s pose some basic questions about Syria:

A great starting place, for most middle school students, would be “where is Syria?”

This map, available along with other resources at the end of that USA Today article, shows where Syria is located and also explains how the US would deliver cruise missiles to Syria.



After viewing this map, I imagine some students might wonder “where does the US have ships and planes stationed around the world?”

Here’s a pretty good map showing where the US has a significant military presence:


Here’s a link to the source of that map, as well as a breakdown of US military deployments around the world.

For some historical perspective, here’s a graph showing how many troops the US has deployed since 1950:

troop levels

[As an aside, it would be interesting to ask students why they think there’s such a steep decline after 1970 — that would be a good way to find out what, if anything, they know about the Vietnam War…]

Okay, so there’s a little bit of perspective about the US military.

As promised, here are some questions about Syria to get us started — the idea would be to have students add to this list. Once we have a reasonably complete list, we would do some research, write about what we learned, and continue to follow the story, posing more questions as we go — but here’s a start:

Questions about Syria:

  • What is Syria’s basic history and how does it get along with its neighbors in the Middle East?
  • What has been happening in Syria for the past two years? Why are so many people in Syria upset with the rule of President Bashar al-Assad?
  • Has the US considered getting involved in the Syrian civil war earlier? What has been the position of Senator John McCain?
  • What would justify the US using force in a situation? Does Syria’s use of chemical weapons justify the use of force?
  • How do events in Syria connect with the “Arab Spring”?
  • What countries have used chemical weapons in the past and what has been the world’s response?
  • What exactly are “chemical weapons”?  How do they work? When were they first used in war?
  • What does the United Nations say about events in Syria? Would the UN have to authorize a US strike in order for that strike to be legal under international law?
  • What is “international law”?
  • Is it illegal, under international law, for a country to use chemical weapons against its own people?
  • What will the US do in Syria?
  • What should the US do?

We’ll keep watching — but students should begin to engage in a conversation about US military power.

This conversation, of course, would naturally lead to questions about US interventions/wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Military force in Syria

  1. stevepeha says:


    Whenever I’ve taught “justification for use of force” I’ve had theist success with Powell Doctrine. Clear criteria. Great lens for military decision-making.

    Hope school is going well for everyone.

    Best regards,

    Steve Peha Founder, Teaching That Makes Sense

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