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In which John Green provides some historical context to the current civil war in Syria, discussing Syrian independence, the rise of the Ba'ath Party, Syria's relationship with the rest of the Arab world (and Russia), the Presidencies of Hafez al Assad and Bashar al Assad, the Arab Spring protests in Syria, and the many flags of the Syrian nation.

Also discussed, in brief: Ryan Gosling and homoerotic Sherlock watercolors (which I found here:


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A Bunny
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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

Today I want to help you understand what's going on Syria, and I know that you're on the internet, so you're constantly being distracted by, like, photographs of Ryan Gosling and homoerotic Sherlock watercolors, but just GIVE ME FOUR MINUTES.

Okay, so our story begins in 1946 with Syria declaring independence and getting a flag. Syria was briefly a parliamentary republic, but it never really went took and in the first ten years they had four different constitutions and like a gajillion changes in government. They were led by this guy, and this guy, and this guy, and this guy -
Couple important things. First, in 1956 Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union promising to dabble in Communism in exchange for guns and tanks and stuff, also in 1958 Syria and Egypt briefly decided to become the same country, the United Arab Republic, which of course necessitated a new flag; but then in 1961 Syria was like, "We're seceding and we're going back to our old flag!" This led to a big mess and a couple of coups, culminating in the Ba'ath party taking control in 1963, with a new flag.

Hank, you may remember the Ba'ath party from Iraq, Ba'athism is a secular - that is, non-religious - political philosophy that advocates for a socialist pan-Arab state. Ba'ath means "renaissance;" the idea is that all Arabs would unify and have this awesome utopia - it didn't work.

All right, let's skip ahead to 1970 when heretofore Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad was president of Syria via bloodless coup, which is my favorite kind of coup. Hafez al-Assad really oversaw the first stable period in Syrian history. He passed a constitution, he established a state-run economy that led to significant growth in per-capita GDP; he also killed a lot of dissidents, disastrously invaded Israel in 1973, and in 1976 entered the Lebanese civil war first on one side, then on the other, thereby beginning a Syrian occupation of Lebanon that would last for almost 30 years. That occupation was not popular, particularly because Syria had a habit of assassinating Lebanese politicians; also he changed the flag twice: once in 1972, and then again in 1980. One more thing about Hafez al-Assad: he was Alawi. Alawism is a sect of Shi'ism with some very unusual beliefs, for instance, unlike most Muslims they don't believe that praying five times a day is mandatory, and also unlike most Muslims they celebrate Christmas.

Al-Assad tried to bring Alawism into the Islamic mainstream: for instance, he prayed in public and he built a lost of mosques, but still to a lot of Sunni and even Shia Muslims, Alawists are seen as apostates.

So in 2000, Hafez al-Assad died, and the Syrian parliament immediately passed a law reducing the minimum age for president from 40, to 34. You'll never guess who was 34 at the time, unless you guessed it was al-Assad's son Bashar. Bashar al-Assad is immediately elected president of Syria with 97.9% of the vote, a statistic that is slightly less impressive when you consider the no one else was allowed on the ballot, and there is widespread hope that Bashar al-Assad will bring reform. Not so much.

That said, no one foresaw how he would respond to the pro-democracy Arab spring protest that began in early 2011. Soldiers who refused to fire on civilians were summarily executed, entire towns were bombed, torture was widespread, tens of thousands were arrested. The U.N. estimates that in the last year more than ten thousand people, most of the unarmed civilians, have been killed in Syria, and Hank, while this fight is definitely not about religion, it's important to understand that most of the pro-democracy opposition is Sunni Muslim and that Assad still enjoys significant support among many Alawis and Christians.

And now Syria finds itself in a civil war. The U.N. security council has tried to act on this, but both Russia and China have vetoed all resolutions about Syria, possibly because of, like, old Cold War ties, possibly because of what they see as failed intervention in Libya, and possibly because Russia's only naval port in the Middle East is in Syria. So at the moment, violence continues, and there is no clear path forward, like, Syria has been expelled from the Arab League, and sanctions will drag down the Syrian economy, but will any of that force al-Assad to resign? And if he does, can Syria return to stability, or will it again find itself having, like, three coups a year?

It's worth remembering that the pro-democracy opposition's flag is this, the one that flew over Syria during all its coups and instability, but those people want freedom and representative government, and the Syrian regime is massacring them for it.

So, should we help? And if so, how? Those aren't rhetorical questions, let's continue the conversation in comments.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.