What caused the conflict in Syria, and how should the international community respond?
First edition. February 2020. 

The Syrian Civil War and resulting refugee crisis is one of the defining humanitarian issues of our time. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and injured more than a million people. Since 2011, the violence of the conflict has prompted about half of the country’s population to flee from their homes. 

By exploring the history of Syria from the Ottoman Empire to French colonial rule, Syrian independence, and the rise of the Assad regimes, The Syrian Civil War provides the necessary historical background to understand the recent conflict. Students consider the legacies of colonialism, sectarianism, and authoritarianism that continue to shape the country and examine the evolution of the recent conflict in Syria—the Arab Spring, the violent repression of protests by the Syrian regime, and the civil war and resulting humanitarian disaster. The Syrian Civil War explores how Syrian social movements and resistance have shaped the country’s history, highlighting the experiences and perspectives of Syrians from the past to the present.

Preview this unit. Preview includes the Table of Contents for the Student Text and the Teacher Resource Book as well as a student reading excerpt and one lesson plan.


The Geography of Syria

Students compare the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire, the French Mandate, and contemporary Syria. Students work together to explore historical images of Syria and identify issues and themes for inquiry.

The Great Syrian Revolt—Analyzing Anti-colonial Writings

Students examine primary source documents and consider the reasons that Syrians revolted against French colonization.

“Beautifying” Dictatorship: Vogue Features Asma al-Assad

Students analyze a primary source document representing the Assads’ attempt to present themselves positively to U.S. audiences.

Refuting ISIS—An Islamic Scholar Rejects Extremism

Students analyze a religious Islamic argument against ISIS and contextualize the source in the history of the Syrian Civil War.

Students gain an understanding of the current refugee crisis by mapping data and exploring personal accounts of refugees.

The Perspectives Activity

Working collaboratively, students examine a range of perspectives of Syrian protesters in 2011 and 2012. Students analyze primary sources that illustrate some of the motivations, fears, ambitions, and realities of daily life for Syrians at a point when the government was escalating its use of violence against protesters.

Students read comics that illustrate stories of Syrian refugees to learn more about the civil war and refugee crisis.


Supplemental Resources

Additional reference material for added context and support.


Abboud, Samer N. Syria. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018.

Batatu, Hanna. Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Cleveland, William L. and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2016.

Dagher, Sam. Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü. A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

McHugo, John. Syria: A Recent History. London: Saqi Books, 2017.

Pearlman, Wendy. We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. NY: HarperCollins, 2017.

Provence, Michael. The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Saleh, Yassin al-Haj. trans. Ibtihal Mahmood. The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. London: C. Hurst & Co., 2017.

Seale, Patrick. Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Zisser, Eyal. Asad’s Legacy: Syria in Transition. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

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