The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Tag: Syria

The Kurdish Referendum

About thirty million Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. These thirty million Kurds are the largest national group in the world without its own country.

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, British Prime Minister Lloyd George was supposed to include Kurdistan on a list of proposed mandates. When someone pointed out to him that he had forgotten to include it, he quickly added it to the list and blithely noted that geography had not been his strongest suit.  Mandate status for Kurdistan might have led eventually to statehood as it did for Iraq and Syria, for example. But neither the French nor the Americans supported a mandate for Kurdistan. One American delegate who had little knowledge of the region characterized Kurds by using a racist comparison to the native peoples of his own country. “In some respects the Kurds remind one of the North American Indians….. Their temper is passionate, resentful, revengeful, intriguing and treacherous. The make good soldiers , but poor leaders. They are avaricious, utterly selfish, shameless beggars, and a great propensity to steal.” (Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Random House, 2002, 444)

Ultimately, the British favored including a part of the region where Kurds lived to be in the new mandate of Iraq. The status of Kurdistan was left up in the air. When Kemal Ataturk came to power in Turkey and began pushing back against efforts to shrink Turkish territory, the allied powers lost all interest creating a Kurdish state.

Fast forward to today.

Since the Paris Peace Conference, many Kurds have demanded greater rights and autonomy, and in some places, independence. But the experiences of Kurds vary from country to country. For example, in Turkey, Kurdish efforts to form an independent state met a harsh crackdown from the Turkish government, sparking a civil war that has claimed over forty thousand lives since the 1980s. Today, many Kurds in Turkey no longer seek independence, but want greater rights and political control within the borders of Turkey.

Kurds in Iraq, after suffering a genocide, ethnic cleansing, and repression at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s government, gained a greater role in the new Iraqi government that formed after the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) controls a region of northern Iraq commonly known as Iraqi Kurdistan. It has its own military and largely governs itself separate from the federal government in Baghdad. In recent years, Iraqi Kurds have expanded oil production and built a pipeline to Turkey to export oil without the approval of the federal Iraqi government. This has increased tension between Kurdish officials and the Iraqi government.

Kurds have also gained international attention for their involvement in the fight against ISIS. The United States has supported Iraqi Kurdish military forces, called the peshmerga, in the conflict. As ISIS swept through regions of Iraq, federal Iraqi officials left their posts in some places. This presented Kurds with an opportunity to expand their control over new territory.

On Monday, September 25, 2017, 92 percent of the Kurds in Iraq voted for independence in a vote that has been condemned by Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Each of these countries, with their significant populations of Kurds, is reluctant to allow Kurds to establish an independent state. All are exerting economic and diplomatic pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government. The idea of self-determination, touted by Woodrow Wilson one hundred years ago, faces a test in 2017.  Like then, the idea of a Kurdish state faces scrutiny and skepticism.

The video features Steven Kinzer answering the question, “How did Kurds respond to Atatürk’s vision for Turkish identity?”  and is associated with our curriculum Empire, Republic, Democracy: 
Turkey’s Past and Future.

Refugee Stories—Mapping a Crisis

“I was just a mother taking care of her children and living in Homs…. I enjoyed life. One day I’d spend an evening with my friends, another day I’d go to a birthday party. That was our life…. Now it’s all gone.”
—Umm Ala’a, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

What does a ten-year-old boy, working alongside his father in a busy restaurant kitchen, think of the friends he left behind in Syria? How does a young man, who took up arms against the Assad regime at age seventeen, adjust to life with his injuries? How does a medical resident, facing repeated arrests for protesting, finally decide to flee? How does a mother and widow, caring for her children, volunteer to help others in her new community in Lebanon?

Choices’ free online lesson, Refugee Stories—Mapping a Crisis, gives students the opportunity to explore the human face of the global refugee crisis. Why do refugees leave their homes? What do they leave behind? What obstacles do they confront on their journey abroad? What is it like to build a life in a new country?

“I can’t describe what I felt. No one can…. We are people, not numbers. These 5,000 people waiting at the border wanting to cross, they didn’t come of their own free will. No one chooses to leave their home. Everyone has a reason.”
—Haifa, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

There are more displaced people today than at any time since World War II. As of 2014, nearly sixty million people had been forcibly displaced from their homes, about twenty million of them refugees. To introduce students to this topic, the lesson begins with foundational information—defining key terms and exploring data on the global crisis.

RefugeeDatasheet

Excerpt from the lesson handout, “Refugee and IDP Data Sheet.” See lesson for full data sheet.

The main activity allows students to read or watch individuals’ stories and creatively map their experiences. We’ve recently updated the lesson and incorporated a collection of video interviews by Al Jazeera—Life on Hold—featuring Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Syrians now make up a quarter of the population in Lebanon. These interviews are a powerful way to introduce students to the human dimension of the refugee crisis. We hope the lesson plan will help you address this topic in your classroom and help prepare your students to participate in the global discussion about responses to the crisis.

“I want my children to get an education…. I imagine Mashael and Mariam will achieve great things. Of course I have dreams. If you don’t have hope then life isn’t worth living.”
—Umm Ala’a, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

A sample of the student mapping activity.

A sample of the student mapping activity.

Update: Debating the U.S. Response to Syria

“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it.”       —President Obama

Last night, President Obama addressed the American public on the topic of the crisis in Syria. After earlier calling for a vote in Congress on the use of targeted military strikes, he has now asked that Congress postpone their decision. With Russia pushing for Syria to hand over its stockpile of chemical weapons, new diplomatic alternatives have come to the fore. The president made clear, however, that the future of these talks is uncertain. Other options remain on the table.

In Choices’ Teaching with the News lesson, Debating the U.S. Response in Syria, students explore different foreign policy options for addressing the conflict in Syria, and have a chance to articulate their personal views on what role the United States should play. What is the United States’ ultimate goal in Syria? Should we pursue military intervention, diplomatic measures, or let other countries take the lead on seeking a resolution? Students are encouraged to share their views not only with their classmates, but with their elected representatives and the president. Referencing individual letters he received in his speech, President Obama made clear that the American public is engaged and grappling with the issues in Syria. We hope students will join in the discussion.

 

Evolution of the Recent Conflict in Syria

aljazeera.com

Two years after popular demonstrations began, an estimated 70,000 Syrians have died and several million more have been displaced from their homes. As Brown University Professor Beshara Doumani remarks, “The optimism of the Arab Spring…has been replaced by the horror of protracted military conflict.” In this interview from the Watson Institute for International Studies, Professor Beshara Doumani, director of the Middle East Studies Program at Brown University, discusses the conflict with Emerson University Professor Yasser Munif.

Professor Munif explores the history of Syria in the region and the evolution of the recent conflict. Munif maps out major domestic and international players, explores the potential for political change, and envisions what conditions might bring about an end to the conflict. We recommend this interview for teachers, or advanced students that are familiar with the current state of affairs in Syria.

For a free online lesson that challenges students to explore the perspectives of domestic and international actors in the conflict, see The Conflict in Syria.

For more in-depth materials on the history of the region and the emergence of the Arab Spring, see The Middle East in Transition: Questions for U.S. Policy.


Beshara Doumani is a faculty fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies and director of the Middle East Studies program.

 

Teaching Human Rights: Sudan, Syria, and R2P

Josie Perry, Choices Teaching Fellow
Rising Sun High School-North East, MD

As I began teaching the Competing Visions on Human Rights: Questions for US Policy unit, I wanted to pre-assess my students’ opinions on US involvement in international affairs, so I had my students watch The Devil Came on Horseback.  The students were fascinated by the documentary because most of them were unaware of the genocide happening in Sudan.  After they viewed the documentary, we had a Touchstones discussion focusing on international intervention in human rights violations.  Touchstones is a discussion format that my district is implementing in all content areas.  It is based on the students reading a text and then discussing a central question.  It is a student-driven activity where the teacher assumes the role of observer.  My initial question was:

If you see someone mistreating another person, how do you respond:

  1. Walk away because it’s none of my business.
  2. Get someone to help me diffuse the situation between the two people.
  3. Step in and help only if I know the person who is being mistreated.
  4. Step in and help the person who is being mistreated because it is the right thing to do.

Why?

Students answered the initial question independently and then shared their responses in small groups.  Then, as a class, we read “This I Believe” by Sunita, who was an aid worker in Sudan.  In this piece, Sunita proposes that all people have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, which is a similar message to Brian Steidle’s in The Devil Came on Horseback.  The students had many questions about the situation in Sudan, so it was difficult for me to act as only an observer for this discussion.  I was amazed at the students’ poignant thoughts on the topic of intervention!  Students were able to see the challenges of any type of intervention and how complex international events can be in today’s globalized world.

I ended the unit by revisiting the question of international intervention in human rights issues and we focused on the current situation in Syria.  I used the AP interactive on Syria and BBC News Syria: The Story of the Conflict sites to provide my students with the background on the conflict.  Then we read “Responsibility to Protect: The Moral Imperative to Intervene in Syria” by James P. Rudolph and discussed R2P within the context of the Syrian situation.  The students’ discussions were so rich and meaningful.  It was one of those days that reminded me why I chose teaching!  Throughout the unit, students gained a greater understanding of the complexity of human rights and the existing paradox in US human rights policy.

Readings:

Sunita. “This I Believe.” This I Believe RSS. N.p., 4 Sept. 2006. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.

Rudolph, James P. “‘Responsibility to Protect’: The Moral Imperative to Intervene in…” Christian Science Monitor. 08 Mar 2012: n.p. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 03 Mar 2013.


Competing Visions on Human Rights: Questions for US Policy is available from The Choices Program website. It is also available as a Free iBooks Textbook from the iBookstore.

Genocide and The Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

By Kenneth Hung, Choices Teaching Fellow and high school classroom teacher, Philadelphia, PA

Peacekeeping

I am putting together a unit on Genocide and R2P to be used in my Contemporary World Conflicts class this January.  The goal of the unit is to have students understand and assess whether R2P could have/should be used as a justification for intervention in the recent Libyan conflict and current Syrian conflict.  This is what the unit is looking like so far:

Intro

Have students define genocide using the “wall” activity in the Choices Confronting Genocide: Never Again curriculum
. Have students read the Genocide Convention and Defining Genocide handouts and answer questions.  I’ll also ask them to evaluate if certain historical events might be considered genocide (see Day 1 of curriculum again), The Genocide map in the curriculum is a great visual for the students.

Lecture

Lecture on history of genocide from Confronting Genocide Teacher Resource book and lecture notes on R2P from the 2012 Choices Leadership Institute.

Film

Show the movie The Devil Came on Horseback, which looks at the tragedy in Darfur as seen through the eyes of an American military observer.  I’ll use movie to critique the argument that R2P should be used in Darfur.  I’ll also use some notes I have on the Arab Spring’s impact on Libya and Syria, including Choices Teaching with the News (TWTN) on “The Conflict in Syria” and other TWTNs on the Arab Spring.

Debate Project

I’ll then divide students into 4 groups – students will conduct research and then debate the following positions, probably in a Structured Academic Controversy format.

  • R2P should have been used against Qaddafi in Libya (YES/NO)
  • R2P should be used against Assad in Syria (YES/NO)

Assessment

Students will post a reflection on my website with their opinion on each debate topic. Students must address at least two arguments used by each side in the two debates.

If anyone knows of some great resources and readings that might be useful to me in this unit, please post them in the comments section below.

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