What we need to know about Syria
July 18th, 2012
10:16 AM ET

What we need to know about Syria

By Fareed Zakaria

The death of Syria's defense minister – in an apparent suicide bombing for which the Syrian rebels have claimed responsibility – is a sign that the rebellion is gaining strength and the Assad regime is cracking. I certainly hope so, but it's important for us to admit that we actually know very little about what is going on in Syria.

Naturally, our hearts are with the rebels and the Free Syrian Army, so when we hear reports about this bombing, we hope it is a sign of their growing reach and effectiveness. But we don't really know much about the circumstances. Is the use of suicide bombing, for example, a sign of the greater involvement of Islamic jihadis?

Similarly, when we hear about a massacre, such as reports last week surrounding events in Hama province, we naturally assume that it has been done by the Syrian military in the most brutal possible way.

And in most cases it’s true. But in some cases we really don’t know enough to be sure. In this most recent massacre, there’s some evidence that perhaps the Syrian government’s version of events was closer to reality than we had realized. But what that highlights to me is not that the Syrian government is less culpable – this is a government that has systematically and brutally used violence against men, women and children. Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen have the blood of innocents on their hands. So whether all the stories are completely accurate or whether some of them are exaggerated seems to me largely irrelevant from a moral point of view.

What is relevant is this: we don’t know much about the rebels. We don’t know, for example, how organized they are or whether they are bands of free floating groups. We don’t know what is their agenda or agendas. And we also, despite today’s reports, don’t really know how effective they are.

The rebels don’t control any part of Syria. In fact, as far as I can see, they don’t seem to have even been able to hold a town in Syria for more than a day. They can launch sporadic attacks – sometimes very effective ones such as the bombing yesterday – they can keep government forces on edge. But they haven’t been able to hold territory. Compare that with Libya, where the Libyan rebels were able to hold almost a third of the country and they took control of a major city, Benghazi.

Now Libya is a very different place – it’s much bigger, with more open spaces to hide in. But that’s precisely my point – for reasons of geography, perhaps, or maybe because of lack of organization, the Free Syrian Army hasn’t been able to succeed in some basic ways. Perhaps it’s because the Syrian military is very powerful and effective. Perhaps there are other, sectarian, explanations.

The first step toward figuring out what we can or should do – understanding the situation on the ground.

What we need to know are the following: is the opposition fighting together in a coordinated way? Who leads it? Does the Syrian National Council — the main exile opposition group – have any sway over these forces? Do the groups on the ground have any sectarian flavor? Are they largely Kurdish or Sunni? What is the role of the jihadi militant groups in the Syrian rebellion?

All this is not an argument for inaction – I’ve laid out a strategy to put intense pressure of the Assad regime earlier. But we need good information. And I’d say this applies not just to Western governments, but to the Western media as well.

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Topics: Media • Middle East • Syria

soundoff (334 Responses)
  1. Andrey

    So Fareed Zakaria publicly declares his support of suicide bombing – that is precious!
    He has got his morale compass and it points whatever direction: because he does not want to go North, right?
    You hart goes with rebels and Free Syrian Army? Let's see if you want to remember that in 12 months!

    All what you need to know is out there already: you just choose not to see it!

    July 18, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  2. hall

    as many people believe. i wont agree on the being weak part. could you go a little more in depth?

    July 18, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  3. Chinmay Joshi

    is there an option of 'justified' text formatting for your posts. Would you care to use it. Thanks a lot.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  4. mmmmmm

    Worse than the stench of pogues is the stench of civilians who think they know more than everyone on the battlefield even though they are glued to their couches. Fcking disgusts me. For all of you wise ones in here criticizing the people in Syria, I want you to ask yourself what chance you would stand if the US military turned on it's own people. The answer is none. You think your 9mm, .45 or your R700 is gonna do anything to Apache's, nuclear subs, F-22's, Bradley's, MRAPs, or well trained combat infantrymen? No. Try and put your couch warrior Call of Duty minds in their shoes for a split second, and imagine how easily our military could tear us to shreds if it wanted to.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Reply
  5. justiceforall

    Finally I can agree with Fareed.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:01 am | Reply
  6. Dan

    The US/Israeli financed/armed "rebels" will never claim Syria. Russia stands to lose a naval base. Will never happen.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:10 am | Reply
    • Dan

      Qur'an 91:11 "Thamud rejected (their prophet) through inordinate wrong-doing. Behold, the most-wicked wretch among them broke forth but the Messenger said: 'Be cautious. It is a She-camel of Allah! And bar her not from having her drink!' But they rejected him as a false prophet and hamstrung her. So Allah on account of their crime, obliterated their traces, doomed them, desolated their dwellings, leveling them to the ground for their sin."

      July 19, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply
  7. The Guy

    Ishaq:327 "Allah said, 'A prophet must slaughter before collecting captives. A slaughtered enemy is driven from the land. Muhammad, you craved the desires of this world, its goods and the ransom captives would bring. But Allah desires killing them to manifest the religion.'"

    July 19, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply
    • jackola

      You sure have a fertile imagination.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:20 am | Reply
    • jackola

      I am a total moron, I researched what I thought was imagination and found all of it to be true. I invite you to all research the Cooooorun to see its true message of hate, murder, lies, cowardice.
      I will never again doubt how barbaric Islam truely can be!
      Qur'an 56:41 "But those of the left hand-how unhappy those of the left hand. They will be in the scorching hot wind and boiling water, under the shadow of thick black smoke, neither cool nor agreeable. ...They will be gathered together on a certain day which is predetermined. Then you, the erring and the deniers will eat Zaqqoom [a thorn tree]. Fill your bellies with it, and drink scalding water, lapping it up like female camels raging of thirst and diseased. Such will be their entertainment, their welcome on the Day of Doom...the welcome of boiling water and the entertainment of roasting in Hell. This is the ultimate truth."

      July 19, 2012 at 11:51 am | Reply
  8. mmmmmm

    Bukhari:V5B59N512 "The Prophet offered the Fajr Prayer [Prayer of Fear] near Khaybar when it was still dark. He said, 'Allahu-Akbar!' [Allah is Greatest] Khaybar is destroyed, for whenever we approach a hostile nation to fight, then evil will be the morning for those who have been warned.' Then the inhabitants came out running on their roads. The Prophet had their men killed; their children and woman were taken as captives."

    July 19, 2012 at 9:31 am | Reply
  9. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism

    Tabari VIII:116
    Ishaq:511 "So Muhammad began seizing their herds and their property bit by bit. He conquered home by home. The Messenger took some people captive, including Safiyah and her two cousins. The Prophet chose Safiyah for himself."

    July 19, 2012 at 9:32 am | Reply
  10. saeed

    Qur'an:3:150 "Soon We shall strike terror into the hearts of the Infidels, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority: their abode will be in the Fire!"
    Ishaq:395 "Muslims, if you listen to the unbelievers you will retreat from the enemy and become losers. Ask Allah for victory and do not retreat, withdrawing from His religion. 'We will terrorize those who disbelieve. In that way I will help you against them.'"

    July 19, 2012 at 10:03 am | Reply
    • Bluejay

      Religions are just tool to brain wash people into obedience of the elite. Faith is believe without question or proof. If you see countries where religion rules there are lower levels of education, good jobs and quality of life for the people they have the highest rate of discrimination and abuse against women and in general, war, disease and mortality.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
    • dt

      I don't pretend to speak for anyone else but I feel that spewing religious doctrine in a public forum is 100% counter productive to your position. Many are not Muslim who read this and like yourself would be unable to understand what is being said if for instance a Lutheran teaching was printed here. Maybe it would be helpful if you tried to express your ideas in a non-religious manner then many of not most could understand you. Personally I think the bloodshed is disgusting and a tragedy, but have no way to do anything to help.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
    • Freedom

      Screw you and your belief

      July 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Reply
    • dt

      m not as smart as Saeed but I will confer with him and get back to you all.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
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