How to talk to students about the conflict in Syria - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 29 August 2013

As media coverage of the civil war in Syria intensifies, it is possible that students may have questions and concerns about the conflict.

How to talk to students about the conflict in Syria

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 30 August

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As media coverage of the civil war in Syria intensifies, it is possible that students may have questions and concerns about the conflict. TES Connect has put together a brief guide to the current situation that could prove useful to teachers and students alike when discussing this topical issue.

Q: Why are Western powers considering taking military action against Syria?

A: The US, the UK and France are considering action after a chemical weapons attack took place on 21 August on the outskirts of Syrian capital city Damascus. Aid organisations have reported that more than 300 people were killed, with thousands injured. The governments of all three of the Western countries believe it was the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad that released the poisonous gas. This, they say, amounts to a "war crime" against his own people.

Q: Is there consensus over military action?

A: Not any more. British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would respect the will of the UK Parliament after it deified him and voted against military on Thursday night. US President Barack Obama is clear that “limited” action should take place but has now decided to seek prior permission from Congress – America’s parliament – where some members are said to be sceptical.

Q: Does everyone agree that Assad was behind the chemical attack?

A: No. Russia, which opposes the planned military strike from the Western powers, says there is no proof that Assad's regime was responsible. The Syrian government itself blames the rebels it has been fighting in a long-running civil war. But British intelligence services believe the rebels do not have the chemical weapons capability and that it is “highly likely” that Assad was behind it.

Q: When and why did the war start?

A: Peaceful protests against Assad began in March 2011 – one of a series of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that became known as the Arab Spring. In Syria, protesters were beaten and shot and the demonstrations swiftly turned into an armed rebellion. Many expected Assad to go quickly, like other rulers challenged during the Arab Spring. But the president has clung to power and in recent months appeared to be gaining the upper hand. By June it was estimated that the war had led to 93,000 deaths.

Q: Who is Bashar al-Assad?

A: The former eye doctor came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, then-president Hafez al-Assad. The family is a member of the dominant Alawite sect, which follows Shia Islam. Despite comprising just 12 per cent of the Syrian population, the Alawites have held power in what is a majority Sunni Muslim country for more than 40 years. Bashar al-Assad initially presented himself as a reformer but took a very hard line against the 2011 protests.

Q: Who are the Syrian rebels?

A: A loose and wide-ranging alliance. To begin with the majority were ordinary Syrians – moderate Muslims who wanted a change in government. But as the war has continued, they have been joined by increasing numbers of jihadist fighters from other Arab and European countries. In some areas it is reported that extremist fighters are now the dominant force in the rebellion.

Q: Is the West planning to intervene to stop the war?

A: No. The planned military strike is expected to be a limited one, designed to send a signal that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, rather than an attempt to determine the outcome of the conflict. But some observers are warning that it will be hard for the West not be to be drawn further into the war if it does take action.

Q: Is a military strike now inevitable?

A: Not necessarily. The UK’s decision not to go ahead has made it more difficult for the other powers. In the US, President Obama has delayed the timetable for action to allow a vote in Congress that is not expected to take place until next week. If Congress decides not to authorise the attack on Syria, it will be politically much tougher for the President to proceed. But John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, has already stressed that the President will have the right to take action whatever Congress decides. Winning wider support remains important. The UK had been carrying out a last-ditch attempt to win United Nations backing for military intervention. But Russia and China – the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, alongside the UK, the US and France – are opposed.

Q: What is the United Nations?

A: The UN is an international organisation founded in 1945 by 51 countries in a bid to maintain peace and improve international relations following the Second World War. Today it has 193 member states.

Q: What is the UN Security Council?

A: The United Nations Security Council is a UN institution with the power to authorise military action, establish peacekeeping operations and international sanctions. All UN member states must comply with decisions from the council, which has 15 members.

Five countries – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – have permanent membership. Permanent membership comes with the power of veto, which gives those countries the ability to prevent a non-procedural resolution being passed by the council, even if all the other members have voted for it.

There are ten non-permanent members, with five elected each year to serve two-year terms. The current non-permanent members of the council are: Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Morocco, Pakistan, South Korea, Rwanda and Togo.

Related resources

Should the UK intervene militarily in Syria?

  • Get your students to investigate current issues in Syria and then discuss and form their own opinions about it.

The Syria crisis

  • These PowerPoints, suitable for primary and secondary pupils, give an overview on the Syria crisis and some of the aid work being carried out there.

Syria: A children's crisis?

  • Oxfam outlines the impact of the situation in Syria on refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan and suggests how young people can effectively respond.

Reporting dangers

  • Without reporters, any story, however newsworthy, would have very restricted circulation. Explore the tensions and dilemmas of working in dangerous and hostile places, such as Syria, with this resource from the British Red Cross.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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