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. Nasairi

    Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut

    July 19, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • gita

      When all else fails, we muslims, have been taught to drag Christians, Jews, Hindus, anyone into the soup.
      LOL it is such a poisonous soup but we will feed it to the innocents.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  2. ted

    Zakaria – what happened to your year-long projection that Assad would not last more than 6 months? Only the islamic-funded network can allow you to print your nonsense.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • ted

      I am a dead giveaway muslim.
      First I lie, then I lie, and, finally, I lie.
      Good job today and now off I go to eat my camel steak. We picked up a young camel the other day and butchered it ourselves.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  3. yuri pelham

    Fareed referred to suicide bombing, but I thought bomb was left in a suitcase or briefcase and was NOT a suicide bomb. It was a targeted assassination. And very well done. Fareed wants facts? irony here!

    July 19, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
    • yuri pelham

      I am so dumb that I cannot keep up with all the latest news.
      However, I did do some research and I found out that at first it was thought that the bomb was detonated from afar. But now that they have counted the poor people assassinated by my brethren the muslims, there is an extra body and consequently it must have been a suicide bomber.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  4. Nodack

    Fareed makes some good points. We don't know who is apposing Assad. They just used suicide bombing as a weapon. Is it ok as long as they kill people you don't like and not ok when it's our people getting killed? Personally I think war is war and suicide bombers are just poor mans smart bombs. In WWII the French Resistance did all kinds of mean things to the occupying Germans.

    How do I feel about Syria and Assad? I only know what I see from the major news outlets. I know they like all Islamic Mid East countries hate Israel and the US. The US is excited about the prospect of Syria falling to Arab Spring/Summer. The verdict is still out on whether the Arab Spring has been a good thing or bad thing. The other countries are definitely in a transition period and who knows what system or who will run those countries in the future. I suppose just about anything would be better than a dictatorship, but a country run by Sharia law would be a step backwards about two thousand years.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • Raj

      You are right. Just look at Libya now. fighting against each other, no law & order, men, women and children are tortured by rival tribes and killed. But we need to be happy, as the Oil now, flows only to USA, Israel, England. All oil drilling, is now controlled by big multi-nationals. Maybe Dick Cheneye is behind all these wars. How about american arms industries doing ? Profit going up.

      July 19, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  5. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Some U.S. diplomats/policy makers talk like Syria/Middle East problems like it's just a tight little package that you can just wrap up and place under a Xmas tree, Romney is one of them.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • Claudia, Houston, Tx

      Of course, I have no proof either way but, still, I will try and confuse the whole sorted thing.

      July 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
    • DC Observer

      Romnet is not in charge of the US; Obama is. And to date Obama has DONE nothing to stop the killing. Obama will risk losing 1,000 votes even if it cost the lives of 1000 innocent Syrian children

      July 19, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  6. DC Observer

    What we do know is this.

    1. The US and other nations do not need Security Council approval to take individual national actions to place sanctions on Syria - the US and others in the UN can just do it.
    2. The US can withdraw favored nation status from Russia and China in international trade which puts Russia and china in the game for some real economic skin.
    3. The US has many more options that it can levy agaunst Russia and China to put pressure on them to act.

    July 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
    • Raj

      Gone are the days when USA could dictate, Russia and China. they need cheap goods from China and other countries. Their own economy is in shambles and unemployment is very high.

      July 19, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
      • Raj

        When my mother is not looking, I will sneak her underwear so that I can put it on my head ............................................................. I prefer the silky ones not the big cotton ones................................................ Pink is a great colour.......................................................Well I got to go push my cuticles. Byeeeeeeeeeeeee!

        July 19, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • DC Observer

      So I feel really stupid, my mom called me and told me that everything I said previously was wrong.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Reply
  7. sasss31

    Only Assad's thugs claim it was a suicide bombing. Why buy into Assad's propaganda?

    July 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • sasss31

      Well, Muslims lie. Who are you going to trust to tell you the thruth?
      The Islamic religion has a long history of myth making. The claim they are the fastest growing religion in the world is pure myth. We have collected the latest statistics from David A. Barrett's huge two volume, "World Christian Encyclopedia", the 2001 AD edition. In case you haven't heard of this work, it is the world standard for religious statistics.

      Muslim's claim that their growth rate is 235 percent and 47 percent for Christianity. This statistic came from the Readers Digest Almanac and Yearbook 1983, and represents 235 percent increase over 50 years. Muslims always leave off the 50 year fact to make it appear they are going 235% every year. A simple review of the readers Digest study shows that the growth rate of Islam vs. Christianity is directly linked to the birth rate in Third World countries where Islam dominates and not actual conversions to each religion. Christianity has always been larger than Islam. These statistics from Readers Digest are over 20 years old. Further, we do not consider readers digest to be an authority on such matters. Why will Muslims not quote real authoritative statistics from certified research groups who show Islam is not the fastest growing religion in 3/4's of the worlds countries.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  8. Lori, Las Vegas

    Since so many Syrian Generals and Soldiers are defecting to Turkey, how about this scenario: Assad suspects these three are thinking about defecting, including the Defense Minister and brother-in-law. So he has his soldiers loyal to him plan and carry out the 'suicide' bombing (inside a government building, mind you) and promotes it as an outside terrorist attack or rebels. In fact, Assad probably videotaped Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij's, the new Defense Minister, weeks ago, but releases it now as part of the game. They say they can't verify when the video was taken, right?

    July 19, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
    • sasss31

      Possible. Muslims lie. No one there will tell you the same story.
      There are more new Christians added to the world population than any other religion on earth every day. Christians take the prize for being the fastest growing religion.
      On none of the 6 continents are Muslims the fastest growing religion.
      That Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world is pure myth at best and at worst a deliberate deception of solid statistical facts.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Reply
  9. Deathstalker

    The author actually has no point when he says he does about Libya/Syria. The only reason Libya rebels were able to hold on to any land for any amount of time is because of the new drive/fly zone by Nato. Mostly imposed by us the Americans. So it comes as no surprise to me that the rebels in Syria can not hold on to a city. How could they when they are being attacked from the ground and air by forces far superior to them. By way of tanks and attack helicopters.

    July 19, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Reply
    • Deathstalker


      I actually have made no point about Libya/Syria.
      " the new drive/fly zone by Nato." I actually have no idea how funny this statement of mine truly is to anyone with half a brain.
      The res is all BS with no foundation.
      You noticed how my moniker is appropriate to being a good muslim.
      I know I am good but what am I?

      July 19, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  10. Raj

    Aren't you surprised ? all of a sudden, the rebels have gained strength, inspite of the west claiming that they have only small arms. As in Libya, foreign mercenaries, CIA, British special Operations group are in the ground helping the rebels. Otherise, they would not have been successful.
    This is all about Shia-Sunni and controlling the middle-east. Saudi and Qatar , ally of the west, wants sunni to be ruling Syria instead of the majority shias. But they are happy with ruling Saudi , Qatar, Bahrain who are majority shias.
    Why Bahrain, inspite of crushing demonstations, is able to hold on to power ? Because, they are with the west and have oil. Why Bahrain, Saudi and Qatar are with the west ? Because the kings, sheikhs wants to hold onto power and rule. They get full support of the west, because they have oil.
    So , what's going on is nothing about democracy, but about power, and greed for oil.

    July 19, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
    • Raj

      I am shia and if I was sunni, I would not be complaining.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  11. DocReality

    Syria is a country that functions as a hub for global terrorism administered by Islamic radicals. Damascus has been plagued w/corruption for decades if not longer.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: Arabs are their own worst enemy. Women are beaten and disrespected. Children are beaten and disrespected. And those children grow up to be hopeless suicide bombers who lack any ability to direct their pain to the original source.

    And unfortunately, that happens in America, too. And it happens across the globe. We're creating our own destruction through our treatment of children.

    July 19, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  12. c_eagle

    By the way..just a silly question..where did the freedom liberation army of Syria (or what the hell they are named) find guns,uniforms,armored vehicles and money in order to fight the tyrant ? Is it true they came all from Lebanon and Turkish borders..? How strange, isn'it... oh dear !

    July 19, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • sasss31

      They stole them or their cousins in the army stole them or they stole them from a gun dealer.
      Anyway, they stole them.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  13. LOL

    The guy on the truck is taking a picture of himself with his cellphone, lol.

    He was thinking "Dude, this is going to be an awesome facebook pic."

    July 19, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  14. jamesdaddio

    Hear the words see the words, Allah, Sunni, Kurdish, Christian, Koran what do they all have in common religious beliefs. Religion is something you believe in to improve behavior, kindness, and mankind not fighting words dealt from the super ego. Don’t get riled up over a few idiots threating your manhood dig deeper like one on one sure there are injustices predicated on self stupidity but do you really believe good people represent hatred and violence.
    It’s like driving a big metal machine everyone is a tough guy but when you look each other in the eye its another story.. I want to believe that mankind is good and that you don’t need religion to keep you in line you can use religion to dig deeper into your self-examination. Refuse to commit murder and there will be no more killing. We all have a violent streak to protect our loved ones and self but most issues can be avoided. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. 
Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Price Acceptance Speech

    July 19, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  15. Bill Foonman

    We need to be very worried about Syria's extensive stocks of chemical and biological weapons.

    When cornered, Assad may use them on his own people or hand them to Hezbollah as he has done in the past with rockets, missiles etc. or the Jihadists already operating in Syria may get their hands on them.

    The Israelis cannot do much to prevent Assad from slaughtering more of his own people however, they will not sit back and wait for Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad to point Syrian WMD at Tel Aviv.

    July 19, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
    • c_eagle

      chemical and biological weapons...like Iraq ? wanna bet ?

      July 19, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
    • Bill Foonman

      or , the capital Jerusalem.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
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