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Uploaded:2013-09-13
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In which Hank discusses the situation in Syria as deeply and completely as he can in five minutes.

Negotiations are ongoing as to whether and how chemical weapons will be removed from Syria. This is an opportunity for the global community, but for the people of Syria, no matter how this discussion goes, there will be years of bloody conflict. We cannot prevent that, but we can help individual people.

Help refugees rebuild their lives http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home
Good morning John. So I got some good news and I got some bad news about Syria... that's a lie - I only have bad news. It is only bad news, it is a terrible situation but there is no solving problems that you don't understand, so here it is, in the next 5 or 6 minutes we're going to understand Syria. At least more than we did before.

Alright, let's start at the foundation of Syria. A bunch of Western powers are introducing the idea of nation states to the rest of the world. They draw a shape on a piece of paper and say "This shape shall be Syria". Inside that shape are lots of different sorts of people who have various degrees of historical and social ties. There are Christians and Druze and Sunni Muslims and Alawites and of course Pluralism does not necessarily breed violence but we... just wait and see.

Fast forward to the Cold War. The First World of the USA and the Second World of the USSR are nabbing up alliances with the "Third World" of everyone else [On Screen Side-note: The "Third World" was composed of countries that were unaligned when NATO was formed. It included most of Central and South America, Indonesia, Africa, The Middle East and much of Asia.]. Russia nabbed Syria through a combination of diplomacy and giving guns, they helped the ostensibly socialist Ba'ath Party take control in Syria [On Screen Side-note: The Ba'ath Party is a political party with the stated goal of creating a single pan-Arab State. This worked out so well that there are now /two/ conflicting Ba'ath Parties. One in Iraq, One in Syria.]. The Ba'ath Party was run by Alawites, the leader was a guy who's last name was Assad, the Father of the current Assad. And even though the Cold War is now over (though although apparently no one has told the United States Defense Budgets), Russia continues to be closely allied with Syria and relies on Syria for its sweet warm water ports which Russia lacks... because it is Russia.

In the years since the Ba'ath Party took over in 1970, Syria has become kind of a segregated place. Scholarships go to Alawi children; government contracts go to Alawi businesses; there are literally lanes of traffic that only Alawite people are allowed to drive in [On Screen Side-note: Alawism is a sect of Islam with very secretive beliefs. They have long been persecuted by Sunni Muslims. Interestingly, they celebrate Christmas.]. The majority of Syria are Sunni Muslim - the official Sunni Muslim stance on Alawites is that they have rejected the teachings of Islam. So that combined with the fact that they've been repressed for like 40 years creates some Sectarian Tension [On Screen Side-note: Sectarian - Of or concerning religious sects], that during the Arab Spring broke open [On Screen Side-note: Arab Spring - A series of youth-led protests that began in Late 2010 throughout the Middle East.]

This is a struggle between a powerful minority and a disenfranchised majority. Peaceful pro-democracy protests were swiftly punished by the Assad Regime - first by putting people in jail, then they kept protesting, then they started to kill them, then they protested more violently, then they started to torture their children and kill their families. It's bad. Then a big hunk of the army defected and became the Free Syrian Army. Ngeh.

It continues however to get more confusing. While the original protest was a pro-democracy protest, and there are still many rebels fighting for a democratic future, there are now tonnes of different rebel groups that all want different things and some of them like each other and some of them don't. Some of them love al-Qaeda, some of them love democracy. This isn't Star Wars, there's no rebel alliance, it's messy and it's muddy and to make things worse, if we are talking about Star Wars here, Assad has basically killed Luke Skywalker and Han and Leia and blown up Alderaan and Admiral Ackbar's gone too [On Screen Side-note: And Yoda and Chewie :( ]. Assad's forces have killed so many non Alawite civilian and military leaders that its completely unclear who the heck would take over if he left.

Now for years, all this was happening outside of the international spotlight, but then chemical weapons. President Obama had previously stated that there is a 'Red Line' and that if Syria uses chemical weapons, something. And it looks as if Assad's forces did use chemical weapons. Sarin Gas was definitely used and it was definitely used on the enemies of Assad's Regime. Now claims to the contrary to me feel very much like 1960's America, where white people [On Screen Side-note: *Some* White People] actually believed that African American radicals bombed an African American Church in order to make the KKK look bad.

Russia has veto power in the UN Security Council and they have never allowed the UN to take action against Assad because Russia loves Assad; and the only ally they have in the Middle East; and those warm water ports.

Now Obama wants to enforce his 'Red Line' even without the UN's support and the American people are like "Oh God, No! Not Again! No!". So the President's like "Well, once upon a time, its was Congress' job to decide whether or not we attacked other countries so lets let them decide". Which is funny because as we all know, if Congress were on fire, Congress could not pass the 'Pour Water on Congress Act'.

Just like Russia needs Assad, Assad needs Russia and so Assad is willing to do a lot of what Russia tells him to do. Which leads us to John Kerry making the weirdest possible accidental act of diplomacy of all time, when he was like "Yeah, I mean Assad could prevent us from attacking them, they could dissuade us by giving us all of his chemical weapons. It's not going to happen, but he could do it". And Russia was like "Oh, hey, ha. Oh, we can do that". This is nice for Russia because now they get to put on the well mannered, diplomatic hero hat which they don't get to wear very much lately, due to all of their corruption and dismantling of democracy and freedom. Plus, lets not forget that Russia blocking any possible action by the UN is why we are in this mess in the first place.

Now its possible that Russia is just enabling Assad's stalling and if it happens, it'll be extremely complicated to collect a bunch of chemical weapons out of a country that is in the middle of a Civil War. But it would be an excellent outcome to be able to enforce the international norm against chemical weapons, not have to blow anything up or ask Congress to do anything.

What it comes down to is anyone who said that they know what we should do in this situation is either being disingenuous or they don't know what they're talking about. Maybe attacking Assad and empowering the rebels will save millions of lives, maybe it will cost millions of lives. Maybe the power vacuum left by Assad would be filled with Islamists who would sympathetic to al-Qaeda. The problem with the future is that it is unknowable and so we don't really know what we should do.

But there is something that we can do - maybe not for the overall geo-politics of the situation but for the individual people. The Syrian Civil War has displaced over 2 Million People and if you would like to join me in donating to the UN Refugee Agency, that money will go to helping those people rebuild their lives.

John, I'll see you on Tuesday.