Questions about Syria lead to civic engagement

My previous post, Military force in Syria, ended with a series of questions I would pose to students trying to understand what’s going on in Syria. It’s crucial that students take time to think about big issues facing our world today, and Syria presents an excellent live case study.

Here’s another question to add to our list — do we know for sure that the Syrian government use chemical weapons? While it’s pretty clear chemical weapons have been used in Syria, we don’t know which group in Syria used the chemical weapons — the Assad government or the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). For details on this question, read this NPR article, which asks Is It Possible The Syrian Rebels (Not Assad) Used Chemical Weapons?

House Speaker John Boehner also has some questions about Syria.

Speaker Boehner wrote a letter to President Obama on Wednesday, August 28, asking the president to spell out his rationale for US military intervention in Syria. Here are some of the questions Speaker Boehner posed in that letter:

  • What standard did the Administration use to determine that this scope of chemical weapons use warrants potential military action? 
  • Does the Administration consider such a response to be precedent-setting, should further humanitarian atrocities occur?
  • What result is the Administration seeking from its response?
  • What is the intended effect of the potential military strikes?
  • If potential strikes do not have the intended effect, will further strikes be conducted?
  • Would the sole purpose of a potential strike be to send a warning to the Assad regime about the use of chemical weapons? Or would a potential strike be intended to help shift the security momentum away from the regime and toward the opposition?

For middle school students, this debate about whether the US should use military force would be a great opportunity to look at the separation of powers in the US government. Who is the “Speaker of the House”? How did he get elected? What powers does the House of Representatives have? What powers does the Senate have? What powers does the President have? What about the Supreme Court?

By helping students engage with real-world events, such as the ongoing crisis in Syria, they can learn civics lessons in a meaningful and memorable context.

Here’s a good lesson plan: have students read Speaker Boehner’s letter (it’s short), the report that the UN will deliver to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon soon after its investigators leave Syria on Saturday, and the text of President Obama’s statement on Syria, which he surely will have to make before initiating a strike against Syria.

Then have students use a framework such as the Powell Doctrine, which (according to Wikipedia) “states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?”

[Thanks to Steve Peha for suggesting the Powell Doctrine as a lens for students to use as they consider what justifies the use of force]

Helping students sift through all of that information about Syria before they come up with an informed opinion is what citizenship is all about. Yes, it’s messy and it will take time — but this sort of wrestling with a real-world problem is a great way to engage with and learn about our world (who is Ban Ki-moon again?)

By having students write short position papers that explain what they would do if they were President Obama (or what they think the US should do) will help them develop reasoning and communication skills.

Post script — this editorial from the New York Times, More Answers Needed on Syria, is a good piece to read as well — do students understand the points the editorial board is making? Do they agree with those points? What would they do if they were President Obama?

And here’s one more resource — also from the New York Times — seven perspectives on the question: Is an Attack on Syria Justified?

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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