At a recent “teach-in” on Syria at Haverford College several professors offered their perspectives on the complex situation in Syria. Anthropology professor Zainab Saleh cautioned observers to “avoid binaries.” She pointed to numerous regional and global players: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Israel, Hezbollah, Turkey, Al Qaeda, United States. There are networks of patronage loyal to the regime and over 200 opposition groups. Both the regime and opposition are brutal, and “the Syrian people deserve better than both groups….”
History professor Ari Ariel detailed the French boundary-making and colonialism that created the modern sectarianism. Samer Abboud from Arcadia University detailed the situation of 8.6 million displaced Syrians, the collapse of the infrastructure, and the fact that all internal and external parties are failing to provide for the overwhelming humanitarian needs.
All speakers reminded us that this crisis is both a civil war and a revolution. Additionally, they agreed, non-violent revolutionary activity is largely unreported: with lawyers organizing initiatives for governance, with parents and teachers running schools, and with farmers trying to rejuvenate the dismantled cooperative farming system.
Teaching about Syria is daunting. But providing students with multiple sources and perspectives on the situation in Syria may allow them to understand the conflict and participate in civil dialogue. Social action in the form of letter-writing campaigns, humanitarian aid drives, teach-ins to the school community, and other such projects are logical—and important—outcomes that will arise from their research.
Assign each student to research one or more of the sources linked below. Students are to make notes on their research in order to teach peers the information they have discovered. In teaching such topics such as climate change, Rethinking Schools’ Bill Bigelow uses a social gathering or “mixer” format to encourage students to actively exchange facts they find in multiple sources. This format can be used to research Syria by allowing students to research individually but to share in pairs. Requiring students to get out of their seats and compare notes with multiple partners allows them to interpret actively and collectively.
Teachers can assign topics on which to focus: historical causes, external players’ influences, internal players positions, humanitarian needs, nonviolent initiatives, alternatives to war, effects (and biases) of media coverage, etc. A gallery wall of poster paper on the assigned topics will allow students to record the multiple perspectives they discover on the situation in Syria.
Like the blind men and the elephant in the Indian fable, by examining pieces of the puzzle, our students may be able to cooperatively piece together an understanding of the major parties and their interests in Syria, the plight of Syrian refugees, and the possible outcomes of recent events. Student apathy and powerlessness can be converted into empathy and action, and a social action piece should be part of this inquiry. Students will be able to identify numerous humanitarian organizations for which to raise funds, for example.
The following are sources of information on the Syrian crisis. Some are mainstream news sources, such as BBC or The New York Times. Others will provide a less familiar perspective. Competing versions of the “facts” can be discussed in a climate of discovery. The learning will be as powerful as the situation in Syria is troubling, confusing, and crucial to teach.
-Susan Gelber Cannon, October 2013
-Susan Gelber Cannon, October 2013
- United Nations Agencies Video Plea Pique student’s interest and sense of urgency with this 2-minute video plea by heads of United Nations agencies for the world to do something to bring peace to Syria.
- Harvard-Belfer Center (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University) Deeply linked site provides links to background basics, where countries stand on intervention, chemical weapons information, etc.
- BBC NEWS Syria Profile Brief history and helpful timeline on timeline tab. Deeply linked site.
- Moon of Alabama-Billmon-Bernhard Blog: "Short history of the War on Syria." Blog written by anonymous Philadelphia-area journalist to "discuss politics, economics, philosophy."
- Dr. Samer Abboud Explores the Causes of the War in Syria: This 38-minute video gives background on parties to the conflicts in Syria.
- Public Accountability Initiative: Conflict of interest in media debate “An analysis of the defense industry ties of experts and think tanks who commented on military intervention”
- United Nations Refugee Agency Syria relief operations, interactive maps, current events feeds, multiple links.
- United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Maps, details on humanitarian efforts, links to news releases and maps.
- Johan Galtung's Op-ed: Solving Syria: A Path to Peace? Johan Galtung offers alternatives to war. The author, a noted mediator, lists options in the Syria crisis and cites previous crises. He includes the “wish lists” of major players, and offers a format for nonviolent alternatives: “The search could be for solutions, not for the solution. Let 1,000 dialogues blossom in each quarter, each village and enrich the gross national idea product (GNIP). Let there be UN-supported facilitators with knowledge of mediation rather than with guns and binoculars….”
- Global Security Institute’s Jonathan Granoff International Criminal Court and Syria: Syria: Law and Legitimacy.
- NPR: Nuremberg Prosecutor Makes the Case for Trying Assad NPR’s 9-8-13 Interview with 94-year old Nuremberg prosecutor recommending using International Criminal Court to prosecute war crimes. Compelling, short audio file.
- NPR: Strikes on Syria Could Send Ripple Effects Across Region Transcript of audio interview on the effects of military strikes by the United States or others on Syria, NPR, 9-8-13.