Teaching Syria to 12th graders

I met today with John Guerra, one of my former students who is now a senior at Cary Academy. John is a bright and diligent student who is taking the most advanced physics class at his school, the top literature class, AP Chemistry, AP Statistics, and US History.

Before we talked this afternoon, John knew next-to-nothing about what’s going on in Syria.

It’s not John’s fault — he’s kept remarkably busy with academics and extracurricular activities, as are most US students — and that’s why few young people know much about what’s going on in Syria.

But John wants to learn — and when we talked, he asked a series of fascinating questions. I’ll detail some of the questions he asked below, but at the end of our conversation we decided it would be fun and educational to have a session to inform interested students about Syria and give them a chance to ask questions.

The session is tentatively scheduled for this Sunday afternoon, September 8.  There will be a way for people who are interested to participate virtually.  More details will be coming — but young people — be they 6th graders or 12th graders — really do want to understand world events.

John first wanted to know what’s going on in Syria — why is the US interested now and how do events in Syria effect the US?

I asked John if he knew about the “Arab Spring” and he said he had heard of it, but did not know what it was. Again, this is not John’s fault, but something seems wrong when a top student at a top school can’t explain the Arab Spring because it has not been “covered” by the standard curriculum.

I asked John to Google “Arab Spring,” and together we looked at this compelling map from the Wikipedia article about the Arab Spring.

arab spring

The US has a huge interest in stability in the Middle East, in large because of the oil that’s there, but also because of the political instability caused in the past two-plus years by the Arab Spring protests.

Syria’s civil war is part of the overall instability in the region, and the US wants to make the region as stable as possible.

But the US can’t just intervene in Syria, because Syria’s allies include Iran and Russia. So before the recent use of chemical weapons, the US has not been overtly involved in the Syrian civil war — an ongoing event that has killed more than 100,000 people in the past two years. The Wikipedia article about the Syrian civil war says that “According to the UN, about 4 million Syrians have been displaced within the country and 2 million have fled to other countries.”

The population of Syria is around 23 million — 4 million people displaced internally and 2 million people fleeing the country adds up to 6 million people — so that means that more than one out of every four Syrians has left his/her home because of this civil war.

I explained to John that in the context of the Arab Spring, where dictators are taken out of power because people are protesting in the streets, the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is concerned that people are protesting against his rule.

As an aside, Time Magazine named “the protester” as “Person of the Year” for 2011:


It’s crazy that we keep our bright young people too busy to be able to follow world events.

Anyway, in Syria’s civil war, the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is looking to keep power there.

John wondered something many people around the country are likely wondering: “Does the US have to be everyone else’s policeman?” That’s a topic worth unpacking and discussing.

He also wanted to know, “If the US decides to intervene, how will it do that?”

I showed John the following map from USA Today, which I’d blogged about a few days ago, and explained that cruise missiles would likely be the way the US would attack Syria.


John wondered if the missiles would aim for regular people in Syria, and I said that the US would likely aim for strategic targets that are part of Syria’s war-making arsenal.

He also wondered how much a cruise missile might cost, and in seconds he found this Wikipedia article about cruise missiles, which told us that “In 2011, it was estimated that a single Tomahawk cruise missile costs US$1,410,000.”

I just looked to find the map with the cruise missiles from USA Today, and it turns out USA Today has updated its maps (thanks USA Today!)

Here’s a link to USA Today’s new series of maps, and here’s a 2-minute video I just made that walks through the maps — they are a great resource:

Later in our conversation, I explained to John that the main opposition group in Syria is the Free Syrian Army (FSA for short) and John wondered if the US should support the FSA, or if the US might not want to support rebel groups.

Indeed, that’s the question — or one of the big questions. If the US overtly helps the FSA, then Iran and Russia might respond by helping Bashar al-Assad. So the idea with this imminent air strike is to hit Syria for using chemical weapons (assuming it did so), but not hit it so hard that the US strike destabilizes the region and pulls nations like Iran and Russia into the conflict.

Update on Feb 25, 2014: Note that the situation in Syria is far more complex than “Assad’s Government versus the FSA.”  According to this guide from the BBC, which profiles the most prominent rebel groups,

There are believed to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups in Syria, commanding an estimated 100,000 fighters.

Many of the groups are small and operate on a local level, but a number have emerged as powerful forces with affiliates across the country or formed alliances with other groups that share a similar agenda.

John and I also talked about the United Nations, and how the US can’t likely get UN support for the use of force, since Russia, as a member of the UN Security Council and an ally of Syria, would veto any such resolution.  This made John curious about the UN in general and whether it is an effective institution.

I’m heading to a panel discussion today at UNC that my good friend Mike Harris told me about.  I’ll report back about what I learn from that panel on this blog, and I’m looking forward to a session on Sunday that will help address the title of this blog post: “Teaching Syria to 12th graders” — they’re ready to learn about this sort of thing, but it will take some time to unpack Syria in a thoughtful way…


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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