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. Jim

    I feel for the innocent civilians who always get caught in the crossfire. It appears that Assads days may be numbered. I applaud the Presidents restraint in this situation. I know that diplomacy didn't work but it puts China and Russia in a bad postion when Syria collapses. I also applaud his use of CIA and I'm sure other agencies to gain intelligence, assist the Turks and most likely in arming and training the rebels. The big thing now is to locate and secure the chemical weapons. So in a few weeks the Obama administration can add another scalp to their growing list of bad guys with little loss of american life

    July 19, 2012 at 10:04 am | Reply
    • Jim

      See how snaky I was? Allah the magnificent and his profiteer Moorhamed have taught me all I know.
      Qur'an 37:19 "They will say, 'Woe to us! This is the Day of Doom.' Assemble the wrong-doers and their wives and the things they worshipped besides Allah, then lead them to the fierce flaming fires of Hell."

      July 19, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply
  2. Ben

    " in an apparent suicide bombing for which the Syrian rebels have claimed responsibility..." Wait a minute, Faheed, I thought the rebels were youg, "Arab Springy" pro democracy students and thinkers (just like Egypt was). I have news for you, the people who blow themselves up, are Islamic Extremists...PERIOD!

    July 19, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
  3. Aaron Chaney

    Covetousness is a sin. Translation: Tunisia only has received proper remuneration during the so-called Arab Spring because they are an original. All the rest i.e. Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and yes Syria, are all covetous copycats.

    July 19, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
  4. Will

    Farheed, are you celebrating a suicide bomber?

    July 19, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
    • Will

      I and my cult (Islam) are celebrating the violent, horrible deaths of all unbelievers (Kafir).
      Qur'an 74:31 "We have appointed nineteen angels to be the wardens of the Hell Fire. We made a stumbling-block for those who disbelieve and We have fixed their number as a trial for unbelievers in order that the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] may arrive with certainty, and that no doubts may be left for the people of the Book, those in whose hearts is a disease."

      July 19, 2012 at 11:57 am | Reply
  5. Ralph

    >>when we hear reports about this bombing, we hope it is a sign of their growing reach and effectiveness<<

    So Fareed, are we to gather that as long as you agree with the target, you condone the use of suicide bombings?

    July 19, 2012 at 11:19 am | Reply
    • Ralph

      Qur'an 70:12 "He would sacrifice his wife and his brother, and his kin who sheltered him, and all that is on earth to deliver himself from the Doom. By no means! For them it is the Fire of Hell! Plucking apart his body right to the skull! Taking away the head skin. Eager to roast; dragged by the head, hell shall claim all who flee."

      July 19, 2012 at 11:59 am | Reply
  6. Peace

    It is obviously a proxy war between Iran and Saudi. The rebels cant fight without expertise, supplies of arms and food. Military expertise did not come from defectors, too few of them, neither did it come from the opposition, most of whom does not even know how to handle a rifle a year ago. How could they be an effective fighting force so quickly? (Of course, some have been driven by the desire of revenge for the dead of their son, daughter, wife, and relatives; while many others are tired of tyranny and inspired by the Arab Spring.) – yet after all, without Saudi group involvement, these rebels dont stand a chance against the establishment.

    July 19, 2012 at 11:32 am | Reply
  7. URareligionsnuts

    Please Marine5484, can you just stop display to poor condition of your mental healt? You suffer a badly illness from a virus called "religions" . The symptoms are a complet lack of wisdom, absence of curiosity and emiting st#d declarations. I'm realy sorry for you

    July 19, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • dt

      Tabari II:78 "And everything that heard him-stones, trees, hills, and dust said, 'Here I am, my Allah, here I am.'"
      Tabari II:99 "Abraham was tested with ten Islamic practices: rinsing the mouth, cleansing nostrils with water, trimming the mustache, using a toothstick, pluc*king the armpit, pa*ring nails, washing finger jo*ints, c*irc*umcision, shaving p*u*bic hair, and washing the r*ear and v*ul*va."

      July 19, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  8. Chris Honry

    I would love to see all these coward crap talkers actually stand up and rebel against the USA that they hate so much. They'd get their butts shot off! Just go buy some cheap AK's and do it, cowards!

    July 19, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
  9. Saeed

    ishbul12345: And when Mohammed (PBUH) had sufficently pleasured himself amongst the sheep and other animal herds, he sought the children of others for the moistening of his loins. He took boys as well as girls but none older than 10. And when he finished his deeds, he gutted them and ate their entrails. With great pleasure he exclaimed, "Allahu Snakbar" (God is my fast food).

    July 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
    • yumastorm

      funny stuff saeed – now be fair and do some parodies of the Bible and Torah.

      July 19, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  10. Basket2012

    @ Fareed Zakaria you said Naturally, our hearts are with the rebels and the Free Syrian Army. Just to clarify you should have said your heart. Not every american citizen is on the side of the rebels. As for me they are part of the problem and also need to be held accountable for the lost of innocent lives. Why are they hiding behind innocent civilians homes and shooting ak47 at government forces and what do you expect the government forces to do? Return fire with a 9mm pistol? Are you kidding me. Also you indicated that the rebels in libya were able to hold large area of territory. Again to clarify on that statement they were not able to hold on those territory capture from the start of the uprising only after NATO started the so-called No fly zone than they were able to hold on those territory. It seem CNN and rest of the western media always take the side of rebels oppose to governments not friendly with the west. This is one of the reason why I stop watching our western new channels for the past 8 years. Because there are a lot of hypocrisy in the story lines of the western media. It seems you guys are following the policy of western government officials (not the western citizens) to further extending their agenda. Why aren't you guy covering the killing in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia for example because these countries Sunni Rulers are friend of our governments and can do whatever they want and our western government and media will play a blind eye to those incidents. Also I congratulate the Russians and Chinese for job well done today (Veto). The bullying by our western governments on countries that are not friend with us should stop. We don't have any reason in Syria but are sending according to Mrs Clinton Non-Lethal equipment like communication gear to the rebels to please our dictators/ aka Sunni Ruling Family friends who are already sending in arm and ammo because they want influence in Syria. Mrs Clinton are you kidding me communication gear is lethal. It leads to organize attack on the Syrian Arm forces and in return innocent people get killed in the cross fire. Mrs Clinton please think next time before you open your brain to the news channels, because you are not fooling the american people but yourself. Thank you from a concern citizen of the District of Columbia.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
    • California surf dude

      VERY WELL DONE REPLY !!!!. "Basket2012". This what we need for the rest of the citizens of the US to know. Mr. Zakaria is way off base in his analysis of the situation in Syria. There are a great amount of $$$ by the rich Arab oil countries being dumped in Syria and also tons of foreign fighters doing the dirty work inside Syria to overthrow a regime that is not willing to follow our foreign policy.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Reply
    • Mp

      simmply, BRAVO well said.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • Basket2012

      I talk and talk and talk but my heart belongs to allah.
      Tabari VI:75 "'Messenger, how did you first know with absolute certainty that you were a prophet?' He replied, 'Two angels came to me while I was somewhere in Mecca.... One angel said, "Open his breast and take out his heart." He opened my chest and heart, removing the pollution of Satan and a clot of blood, and threw them away. Then one said, "Wash his breast as you would a receptacle." He summoned the Sakinah, which looked like the face of a white cat, and it was placed in my heart. Then one said, "Sew up his breast." So they sewed up my chest and placed the seal between my shoulders.'"

      July 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
    • California surf dude

      As a muslim, I had to say something, anything because allah has taught me to deceive>
      I have little teeny tiny cahones.
      Qur'an 78:37 "The Lord with Whom they cannot dare to speak, none can converse with Him, none are able to address Him."
      Qur'an 86:13 "Lo this (Qur'an) is a conclusive Word; it is not a thing for amusement. It is no pleasantry. And it is no joke."

      July 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • Davis

      They removed mohamed's heart and called it "polution".
      So cult!
      No wonder!

      July 19, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Reply
    • مت

      While Fareed may have rambled on and made this article longer than it should have been, the point of this article is to bring your average Joe reading Western media outlets back down to earth. Regardless of the context of what we read/hear from the media, we don't "actually" know what is going on or it what is reported is true or not.

      July 20, 2012 at 3:00 am | Reply
    • مت

      You see, we muslims, have been taught to lie from birth therefore nothing that comes out of our mouths should be trusted.

      July 20, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Reply
    • clearick

      The US is more friendly to the Sunni led nations because the US can do business with them. That doesn't mean our interests in Syria are clear. Syria is more about causing Iran to overstretch itself than anything else. This is clearly to the West's advantage as well as to Israel which sees the surrounding nations fall into the abyss of instability. Countries so undermined are no threat to Israel, and they didn't have to life a finger and neither has anyone else. As far as the West is concerned the Shia are bad and we want them to lose. The majority of people in Syria are Sunni, and this is why the Gulf states support them. All of this fallout is directly related to the US destruction of Iraq, where the Sunni minority under Saddam controlled the majority Shia population. Saddam kept Iran in check. Now Iran is over-reaching itself and well start to see the cracks in that regime. It's called imperial overstretch and the Iranians can't resist. This will turn the Syrian people against them and solidify the Sunni position in the area.

      July 20, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  11. Oh Really?

    I am not sure a suicide bomb that takes out Syrian officials shows any strength on the part of the rebels. What it does show is a lack of security and a clear arrogance on the part of the Syrian government. No security force in it's right mind would have let this happen. I am sure this is an isolated incident that will not be repeated. While I am hopeful that Assad can be brought down, there is a serious problem with the collapse of his government. That problem is that we in the west assume the rebels want democracy. That may not be the case. They may very well wind up with a Taliban-like theocracy that is far worse than what we have today in Syria. There is no clear leadership among the rebels, no coordinated effort. The fighting is in pockets all over the country without an overall strategy, nor a coordinated plan as to what will happen if the rebels win. Syria, a key country for everyone in that region, is descending into chaos and becoming quite unstable to the point that once Assad is gone, there will probably be a situation much like other countries who have toppled their despots. Factions will fight factions, the military or a theocracy will take over, and the situaiton will be virtually unmanageable by anyone involved. Though Russia and China are painted as the bad guys here, one must realize that what they are trying to do is keep the area stable in their own ways. None of it is working. Only time will tell what is in store for the people of Syria.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  12. palintwit

    If I was Sarah Palin, I'd hurl myself into the nearest woodchipper. End of story.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  13. mhill68123

    Upsets you huh?
    These people have been fighting for thousands of years.
    Won't stop now because the fundamentalist Muslim countries are BARBARIC.

    July 19, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  14. rockytony


    I bet that you were one of those people who danced in the streets with the rest of the Kumbaya folks when Egypt's April Spring enfolded. And now look what we,ve got. Like Egypt, Syria could wind up the same way. The same Syrian thugs are on both sides of this battle, many former Assad militants. So be aware of what could be in store before you express your joy and euphoric comments.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  15. The Patriot


    July 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
    • The Patriot


      July 19, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  16. joe

    Since when does Mr Zakaria become spokesperson for US population?

    July 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  17. joe

    I wonder if Mr. Zakaria will spend his huge analytical think on the mass murder of Israeli school kids yesterday?? crickets....

    July 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  18. gita

    There is wild cheering in the US at the suicide bombing in Syria that kiiled key people in the Asad regime. What is becoming obvious is that this has become an open battle between Saudi Arabia plus Sunnis and Iran plus non-Sunnis(Allawaites). In this war, the US is supporting the Sunnis, for obvious reasons. Clearly, what is unfolding is the prospect of another Yugoslavia. Such a prospect will take the battle to the Saudi Kingdom, which will see an increase of shia uprising. The instability in the Middle East is the prospect for the next decade and all the uncretainty that brings to Oil supplies. Let us hope that sanity prevails!

    July 19, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
    • gita

      Qur'an 4:65 "They can have no Faith, until they make you (Muhammad) judge in all disputes, and find in their souls no resistance against Your decisions, accepting them with complete submission."

      July 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
    • gita

      We, muslims, have been marked by Satan.
      I wish I had not spoken up so much on CNN because I have been branded now.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  19. lifeknoxhard

    We should stay out of it and let Syria handle their own problems. If the rebels wish to PURCHASE arms from us, and they are deemed not a future threat, I am all for it as long as the US makes a profit.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  20. NetStaff

    Russia and China will be against USA and UK & France. Can the western economy handles another war? NO WAY! Europe almost bankrupt and the states, you know better than me.
    Now Pakistan and South Africa have stood behind Russia and China as of today.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • DC Observer

      LOL Pakistan and South Africa combined could beat the New York Police department in a war... what a joke.

      July 19, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  21. ALLAH Loves America, hates the Middle East

    America: Clean water, Peace, Prosperity, Abundance of Food, Pretty Women who can dress how they want, educated, and free
    Middle East: No clean water, dirty, poor, starving, blowing eachother up, uneducated, oppressed etc..

    ALLAH ❤ America.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  22. observer1776

    Asad has moved his HQ to Latakia, which is a large and capable port, more so than Tartus. He is now in a position to get more direct naval support from Russia. With Russian warships in Latakia, the Turks will have to think twice about responding to Syrian aggressive moves. No way is he fleeing the country at present. He is setting up for a total war.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  23. Fearless Freep

    How is that camel bite healing ?
    Allah snackbar.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
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