The Middle East: Questions for U.S. Policy draws students into the U.S. policy debate on one of the world’s most important regions. Students examine the role of oil in geopolitics, the issues between Israel and the Palestinians, the significance of the Iranian Revolution, and other historical issues that have shaped U.S. relations in the region.
Original Lesson: October 2016. Revised April 2017 and April 2018.
- Analyze the issues that frame the current debate on U.S. policy towards Syria.
- Work cooperatively within groups to integrate the arguments and beliefs of the options into a persuasive, coherent presentation.
- Explore, debate, and evaluate multiple perspectives on U.S. policy towards Syria through a role-play activity.
Tips for Role-Plays – Learn about ways to ensure a successful Choices role-play or simulation experience for students.
In the Classroom
1. Understanding the Syrian Civil War
A. Ask students to brainstorm what they know about the civil war in Syria.
B. Watch these two short videos about the Syrian Civil War with Professor Bessma Momani.
C. Distribute Key Players in the Syrian Conflict. Tell students that this handout shows four key players in the war (highlighted in color circles) and includes information about various regional and global powers that have been drawn into the conflict. Review the definition of “proxy war” on the handout and direct students to read through the descriptions in all the text boxes. Then show the following video from Vox. Students may wish to annotate their handout as they watch the video (for example, by drawing arrows between competing regional or global powers).
This video from Vox provides an overview of the conflict and its participants. It explores how U.S. policy has evolved over time and addresses the U.S. strikes against a Syrian air base on April 7, 2017.
D. Show the following short videos to provide additional context.
In this short video from the New York Times, Syrians share their reactions to U.S. military strikes in 2017.
This short video from the New York Times includes footage from the April 2018 joint U.S., French, and British airstrikes on three suspected chemical weapons research and storage sites in Syria.
E. You may want to have students explore the following online resources to learn more about important events and key players in the Syrian conflict:
F. To make sure students have a firm grasp of the topic before beginning the role-play activity, prompt discussion with some of the following questions:
- Why is there a civil war in Syria? What is the current state of the war?
- How has the civil war affected Syrians?
- How have other countries in the Middle East been affected by or involved with the civil war? Which countries have a stake in the conflict?
- What is ISIS? What role does it play in the conflict?
- How has the United States responded to the conflict over time?
2. Exploring Contrasting Policy Options
Students will need class time to prepare for the role play. To save time, form student groups beforehand. Break up the class into four groups and distribute U.S. Policy Options and Options: Graphic Organizer. Assign three of the groups a policy option. Assign the remaining group the role of senators in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. (If you have a large class, you may want to make a fifth group of foreign representatives.)
Tell students that they are going to take part in an important deliberation. They will consider three options for U.S. policy towards Syria. Each is based on a distinct set of values and beliefs. Each takes a different perspective on the U.S. role in the world and its stake in the Syrian conflict.
Option Groups: Each group will review its assigned option and develop a three-to-five minute presentation to give to the class. The presentation should make the best possible case for their option. Challenge students to incorporate evidence from the option description, videos, and online resources into the development of their presentations.
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: This group will review each of the options and prepare clarifying questions to ask the option groups during or after the presentations. Each student on the committee should come up with at least two questions for each option.
International Representatives: If your class is large, you may want to have some students be representatives from other countries. You should assign students (individually or in small groups) a country and tell them to research that country’s position on the conflict in Syria. After the options presentations, these students can present their countries’ positions on Syria and their view of U.S. policy options. (Here are a few suggestions for countries: Great Britain, France, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, Senegal, Bolivia.) The following resource provides a brief overview of international reactions to the April 7, 2017 U.S. military strikes. Students should do additional research on their country’s position on the Syrian Civil War.
Give students about 15-20 minutes to prepare their presentations and questions. Then organize the room so that the three option groups face a row of desks reserved for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Explain that the simulation will begin with short presentations by each option group. Encourage students to speak clearly and convincingly. All students should fill in the graphic organizer as each option presents. You may wish to have the senators ask questions after each presentation, or save all the questions for the end.
3. Considering U.S. Policy
After the simulation, have students step out of their roles as advocates for their assigned options. Ask them what they think about the different options.
- How do students think each of these options would affect the U.S. relationship with Syria in the long term? The U.S. relationship with the rest of the world?
- How would each option affect people in the United States? What about people in Syria?
- What values and beliefs underlie each option?
Now have students consider what policies they would suggest the United States pursue regarding Syria.
- What aspects of the different options do students support?
- What policies are students concerned about?
- Can students identify some of the difficult trade-offs that policymakers face?
- What do students think should be the primary aim of U.S. policy regarding Syria? What policies would achieve this aim?
- Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to declare war and to devote funds to the Defense Department to wage war. Article II of the Constitution specifies that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces. Should a president be required to seek authorization from Congress in order to involve the United States in military action – such as airstrikes in Syria?
Teachers may wish to extend their study of Syria using the following free online resources from Teaching with the News by the Choices Program.
Refugee Stories: Mapping a Crisis
This lesson helps students explore the human geography of the refugee crisis.
Syrian Refugees: Understanding Stories with Comics
This lesson has students analyze comics that are based on the real-life testimony of Syrians seeking asylum. Students consider how the stories of individuals can inform understanding of a larger political context.
Let Your Voice Be Heard
Encourage your students to express their views on U.S. policy towards Syria.
Contact Elected Officials
Students could write letters to elected officials. They can find contact information for the White House at www.whitehouse.gov/contact and their U.S. senators and representatives at thomas.loc.gov.
Students could write letters to the editor of a local paper or write articles for the school or community newspaper.
Social Media Challenge
Challenge students to create their own hashtag slogan and campaign to raise awareness about events in Syria through social media.