The Abyss: Helping ESL Students Understand the Syrian Civil War

The Abyss: Helping ESL Students Understand the Syrian Civil War

Like a lot of people, I’m concerned that our media isn’t depicting complex issues carefully enough.

The coverage often seems to rush along as though concerned that we’ll lose interest if they focus on one issue for too long. So, I confess that I tried out an experiment on my friends during the recent Thanksgiving weekend. Of the ten Americans I asked, only three could name any of the causes of the present tragedy engulphing Syria, and though all could name its leader, no one knew how he had come to power, or why Russia was playing such a critical role in the conflict. Surely, I thought, if college-educated Americans are struggling to understand these issues, then our ESL students, operating in their second language, would find them truly baffling.

So, here is a basic primer on the conflict, with discussion questions, practice opportunities and links to further reading. You may find that your students are unfamiliar with these issues, and that you’re having to feed in a lot of new information. This is always fine, provided that you don’t go too fast for the level of students in your class, and if you remember the Golden Rule:

Don’t speak for more than twenty seconds without asking a question which requires a thoughtful answer.

I read the news daily, but I found myself having to puzzle through the different groups and allegiances involved in the conflict; I’d encourage you to spend a few moments reading about the different sects of Islam, and about the Assad family, just to provide some more background. But, here are the basics:

11 Tips for Helping ESL Students Understand the Syrian Civil War

  1. 1

    Where, What and Who?

    Maps are going to be important. If you have students from the region, they can give the others a quick ‘guided tour’ of capitals and holy sites; otherwise, you’re going to be introducing Syria and her neighbors to your students. Work on pronunciation, and notice how the names of countries and cities are often transliterated in other languages (Chinese is a good example). Focus on Syria and its main cities - Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.

    Then, show pictures of Bashar Al-Assad, the present authoritarian ruler of Syria. It’s likely that your students know of him as a war criminal, but please be careful if you have students from Russia, as they may have been guided to see this controversial, divisive figure very differently indeed. Elicit opinions about him, and see if your students have heard of:

    • His wife, Asma, a British-Syrian national who was respected for her encouragement of social and economic development in Syria prior to the war.
    • His father, Hafez, who was the ruler of Syria from 1971, when as Minister of Defense he seized power from the previous President, until his death in 2000. Bashar, third choice after the President’s brother and eldest son, then assumed the role.
    • The Alawite sect to which the Assad family belongs. This is a smaller group which celebrates an unusually broad range of both Islamic and Christian traditions, and is often described as secretive. Bashar Al-Assad divided the government on sectarian lines, installing loyal Alawites to run Syria’s security services, and Sunnis to operate government departments and the civil service.
    • The allegations against the regime. Assad has faced global criticism for attacking civilian targets using indiscriminate chemical weapons, inaccurate air strikes, and controversial ‘area effect’ artillery. More than one foreign government has suggested that he should leave power, but Assad has strong support in some areas of Syria, and from Russia.
  2. 2

    Religious Division

    Paint a picture of modern Syria as a nation state which has become intimately involved in the complexities of ethnic politics in the region. Of great importance here is the division between Sunni (Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, North Africa) and Shia (Iraq, Iran) communities. Virtually every Muslim nation has a majority of one, and a minority of the other; Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for example, though largely Shia, was run by the Sunni minority Ba’ath Party until it was deposed and then dismantled following the US-led invasion in 2003.

    Very basically break down the differences between a Sunni and a Shia Muslim, remaining aware that your non-Muslim students will probably be encountering these divisions for the first time. Remember that, for a range of reasons, much of the world identifies followers of Islam as a monolithic group, whereas nothing could be further from the truth.

    Consider this problem with your students; how has this perception arisen? What effects might it have, once the public begins tarring all Muslims with the same brush? Is this the fast-track to ethnic profiling and ‘registries’ of Muslims living in a given place, as has been suggested by (President-elect, at the time of writing) Donald Trump?

  3. 3

    How Do Civil Wars Begin?

    Take a moment here, and ask your students to compare the present situation in Syria with other historical issues. Can they name another civil war? China (1920s-40s), Russia (1917-19) and Korea (1950s) all provide ready examples, but why do these conflicts begin? Point out the ideological conflicts (capitalism vs. communism) and the religious divisions (Sunni vs. Shia) which often define the fault lines. Then consider the idea of foreign help; how do opposition groups find the weapons and support they need? Would civil wars be more, or less violent, if foreign agencies played no part?

    Quickly consider the ‘areas of influence’ within which NATO (headed by the US) and the Warsaw Pact (led by the USSR) operated during the Cold War. Pick out the ‘client states’ which received generous Soviet support in exchange for their political weight, and the Soviet use of bases. These included Iraq, Syria, North Korea, China (for a time), and Egypt. Consider why foreign states spend enormous sums, and considerable political capital, to build and nurture these relationships; the benefits of geostrategic positioning and the opportunity to halt the progress of opposing ideologies are seen as rich rewards.

  4. 4

    The Great Dictator

    Then, find out how many other dictators your students can name. With the passing of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, the cohort of genuine autocrats has shrunk, but consider the Al-Saud family in Saudi Arabia, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and Kim Jong-Un in North Korea. What are the ‘advantages’ of being an autocrat? What institutions or events will be absent in an autocratic regime? (E.g. an elected parliament, checks and balances, the rule of law, term limits, etc). How do dictators generally treat opposition figures? (Prime examples are Mugabe, and the military juntas who, at different times, took power in Burma, Argentina and Chile).

  5. 5

    The Arab Spring

    In 2010, a remarkable wave of protests began in Tunisia and soon spread across the Middle East. In the next two years, governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were overthrown, and the protests had a major impact on government policies in perhaps a dozen other nations, from Morocco to Bahrain. Help your students find these countries and name the key leaders and events.

    The Arab Spring has a very various genesis, with commentators assigning a range of causes:

    • Unemployment and economic inequality
    • The emergence of large numbers of educated, disaffected young people
    • Dissatisfaction with dictators who were unconstrained by the rule of law
    • Human rights violations and government-sanctioned repression
    • Corruption among government and military figures
    • Rising food prices due to globalization (exacerbated by prolonged drought and serious crop failures in Syria, 2007-10)

    Brainstorm the likely effects of these problems. How would the local people view their government? What tends to happen when large numbers of unemployed, disaffected youths begin to gather? Are there examples where government repression has backfired? (Hint: there are dozens; begin with pre-independence India and the role of Gandhi, move onto the US Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, and (provided you have no students from China) consider the global reaction to events at Tiananmen Square in 1989.)

    Social media played an unprecedented role in spreading ideas and enabling protestors to organize. Facebook and Twitter were indispensable tools of the Arab Spring, and demonstrated how ‘digital democracy’ can influence events at a pace undreamed of by revolutionaries from past centuries. Ask your students what difference it might make for protestors and organizers to be able to communicate in real-time, and to post images and ideas which will be instantly read across the region. Consider also the value of cellphone footage; hardly any recent disaster, protest or terrorist incident is absent a video of some kind.

    Look again at the causes of the Arab Spring, because Syria was dealing with virtually every one of these factors. President Assad’s domestic policies favored investment in service industries, which brought a boom time to the cities, but also caused massed, rural unemployment and serious income disparity. In addition, researchers have demonstrated that the political ramifications of the drought comprise the first instance of a revolutionary movement emerging as a result of the global climate crisis. Assad’s brutal and heavy-handed response to the first wave of protests created enormous resentment and the outpouring of decades of accumulated anger against the regime and its methods.

  6. 6

    The Free Syrian Army

    Most revolutions pit the under-equipped but hopeful downtrodden against their heavily-armed and determined oppressors. In the case of Syria, the opposition forces consisted largely of defectors from Syria’s military, who brought with them large amounts of weapons, including armored vehicles. Large, set-piece clashes and extended urban warfare between the FSA and Assad loyalists heavily damaged many of Syria’s regional centers and, at the time of writing, the violence threatens to entirely destroy Aleppo - a town of two million in 2004, and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

  7. 7

    ISIL: A Massive Complication

    Academics will be examining the breath-taking and terrifying rise of so-called ‘Islamic State’ for generations to come, but in the first place, it’s important to define this group in terms rather more nuanced than those of the media; certainly, to call ISIS a ‘barbaric death cult’ is simply to match a description with the overwhelming evidence, but every revolutionary movement (except perhaps nihilism) strives to achieve something.

    What do ISIS want? Have your students research the idea of the Islamic Caliphate, and Sharia Law. Little analysis will be needed, though, to conclude that ISIS is not a good form of government for areas it occupies; the group attempts to reverse progress, imprisons and murders secularists and opponents, relegates women to third-class citizens, and has looted or destroyed some of the world’s foremost cultural treasures (e.g. Palmyra). Read the latest news on ISIS with your students; chart their recent territorial gains and losses, and discover who among their leadership has been targeted for drone strikes, for example.

  8. 8

    Russia: The Specter of a Proxy Conflict

    The involvement of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the Syria crisis is, at first glance, perplexing. Russian military adventurism has brought moments of true disaster - one need look no further than the quagmire in Afghanistan (1980s) - but also, the Soviet Union provided Cuba, Egypt and North Korea with the weapons and training to take on their ideological opponents. Define a ‘proxy war’ - one in which local stakeholders are supported through the self-interest of a distant power - and discuss with your students quite why the Russians have taken the considerable political risk of becoming involved in this endlessly messy conflict, and spent the enormous sums necessary to make a large military deployment, all while they suffer the effects of sanctions and a shrinking economy.

    Is Putin making some kind of geopolitical power play? What does he hope to achieve? Will President Assad be able to remain in power, with Russian help? Is there the danger that this ‘proxy’ conflict might expand and bring in other pro-US and pro-Russian actors in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey?

  9. 9

    A New Cold War?

    Quickly brainstorm the salient details of the most dangerous moment of the post-1945 era: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961. Here, Soviet Premier Khrushchev played an elaborate and risky game of ‘chicken’ with President Kennedy, and was eventually obliged to blink first. Could a similar escalation come as a result of the Syrian conflict? What would happen, for example, if a no-fly zone was established over Aleppo, and then US or British fighter jets were instructed to engage Russian warplanes? The Cold War never ignited into the global catastrophe predicted by the Institute for Atomic Scientists (they of the ‘Doomsday Clock’), and this was largely due to the cool-headed responses of NATO and Soviet leaders during times of crisis. Can we be as confident, as 2017 approaches, that our contemporary leaders will think long-term, and keep their fingers off the nuclear button?

  10. q

    The Migrant Crisis

    Perhaps the most visible, and certainly the most heartbreaking element of the Syrian Civil War has been the flight of some four million Syrians, many of whom were obliged to seek sanctuary in neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands, however, have made the risky journey from Syria through Turkey or Greece to Europe. The pictures of struggling, bedraggled migrants being rescued from the Mediterranean, or trudging through a sodden field toward another border, will become the defining images of 2016. Show your students these pictures, and ask them to verbalize quite what these people have been through. I’ve found that, when faced with such miserable human tragedy, our imagination and capacity for compassion often fail us; we see thousands of new mouths to feed, and new people for whom we must find accommodation, rather than considering the individual stories of people driven from their homes by an utter paucity of hope.

    Take care, though. There are strong anti-migrant sentiments in some European countries, and in the US, where Syrian refugees are often simply lumped in with the murderous lunatics who rampaged through Paris, Brussels and Nice in recent months. Depending on how you viewed the result, the British EU referendum in June 2016 sounded a very cautious, even callous approach to those requiring our help, and the election of Donald Trump is hardly an endorsement of compassionate immigration policies.

    What should the world’s major countries do to help these people? What would be the implications of simply sending them home, as many on the political right would like to see? Can we be certain that we’re not inviting new security risks by providing shelter for these people? How, ultimately, can you tell if someone is a terrorist?

  11. w

    The Future

    Despite numerous peace conferences and the attention of the world’s media, the situation in Syria remains appalling for those caught up in the conflict. Having read and researched a little now, your students may be able to offer some insight as to a way forward. Who should be involved in the process of finding a meaningful, sustained peace? Are the fault lines of sectarianism just too stark for there to be hope of reconciliation and compromise? President Assad seems content for his country to self-destruct during his tenure, and has categorically refused to leave office; if so, what will the future hold?

    The opportunities for debates, research and writing exercises are very numerous. Try some of these as ways to further your students’ understanding, and to practice the key language:

    • Have your students put together a TV news show about the conflict. The anchor could interview a correspondent on the ground in Syria, an expert in the studio, and perhaps a migrant who has recently arrived. Recording these shows for later playback is a treat few students ever forget.
    • Break down the conflict into discrete topic areas, and invite your students to prepare presentations in pairs. Potential topics include:
      • The Sunni-Shia-Alawite divide
      • The historical connections between Syria and the USSR/Russia
      • The rise of ISIS and its aims
      • Some of the other, smaller armed groups who are opposed to President Assad, or who are fighting for Kurdish independence
      • The migrant crisis and its implications for European society and politics
      • Individual stories from the front line, a hospital, an everyday family, etc
    • Give your students time to prepare a short drama discussing an aspect of the conflict. A good place to begin would be the migrant situation; have them pen dialogues between recently-arrived migrants and officials, charity workers, members of the public, and perhaps those who are less welcoming. Illustrate the humanity of these refugees, and how much they have lost; contrast this with the casual, dismissive form of racism seen on the right-wing in Europe.
    • It’s more difficult to arrange, but the opportunity for your students to speak with a Syrian, or someone from the region who can reflect personally upon the conflict, would be priceless.

I imagine there’s hardly anyone who doesn’t open the newspaper in the hopes of some good news from the Middle East.

Incomprehensible to many of us, and deeply frustrating, the Syrian Civil War is a vivid and remarkable culmination of ethnic strife, autocratic politics, social division and foreign intervention, all wrapped up in an overwhelming human tragedy. Understanding this quagmire is essential, and though the task is complex and will take time, the effort will prove very worthwhile.

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