April 2017 (update)
Original Lesson: October 2016. View the most recent version of this lesson here (May 2018).


Students will:

  • 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.


U.S. Policy Options

Options: Graphic Organizer

Tips for Role-Plays
Learn about ways to ensure a successful Choices role-play or simulation experience for students.

1. Understanding the Syrian Civil War

Watch these two short videos about the Syrian Civil War with Professor Bessma Momani.

How did the Syrian Civil War begin?

How has the Syrian Civil War sparked a refugee crisis?

The following videos will provide additional context for the activity.

Syria’s war: Who is fighting and why
This short 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.

Hope and Condemnation as Syrians React to U.S. Strike
In this short video from the New York Times, Syrians share their reactions to the recent U.S. strike.

After watching the videos, ask students to brainstorm what they know about the civil war in Syria.

You may want to have students explore the following online resources to learn more about important events and key players in the Syrian conflict:

BBC: Syria’s War

Al Jazeera: Syria’s Civil War

Jadaliyya: Syria

Refugee Stories: Mapping a Crisis
This free, online lesson by the Choices Program helps students explore the human geography of the refugee crisis.

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?

2. Exploring Contrasting Policy Options

Students will need class time to prepare. 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 debate. 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 them to incorporate evidence from the option, 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 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. These students can present their countries’ views on Syria and the options for U.S. policy after the presentations. (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 each country’s views on the Syrian Civil War.

Which Countries Support and Which Oppose the U.S. Missile Strikes in Syria

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. 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 they think each of these options affect the U.S. relationship with Syria in the long term? The U.S. relationship with the rest of the world? How would it affect people in the United States? What about people in Syria? What values and beliefs underlie each option? What role do students believe the United States should have in addressing this issue and other international issues?

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?

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.

Write Locally
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.

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