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 (336 Responses)
  1. Weber

    Zakaria for President!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 20, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  2. Matt

    This is a very much needed article for the Western media and its audience, well done Fareed! Those questions you raise are paramount to the situation. One I would like to add is the role of the high rank military defectors. Are they excluded entirely from the chain of command? Or are they simply elevated to their equivalent ranks in the rebel army? Personally, I'd be concerned some purely defect to infiltrate and serve as a spy to provide critical intel for the Assad regime, but that's just me.

    July 20, 2012 at 2:51 am |
    • Matt

      You see, as a muslim, I know how deceitful muslims can be. We are not able to trust each other–let alone an infidel (Kafir)!

      July 20, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  3. KEVIN

    Fareed, you are absolutely brilliant. How do you get around the globe so quickly and work so hard and write so many articles so quickly? The work you do is beyond my comprehension. Do you ever get harassed by the US govt. for your opinions? If so, they obviously are very tollerant and still feel safe with you. You are absolutely brilliant.

    July 20, 2012 at 3:47 am |
    • KEVIN

      As a good muslim, noone believes anything i say. Why??

      July 20, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  4. Suleman Dawood

    Dear Fareed,

    I always read your articles and ocassionally GPS also because of the timmings it appears in my country. The most important factor which you highlighted and I agree in full the "Suicide Bombing" issue. one is legitimate and one is not, in my personal opinion. I used to be shocked when I was young when seeing a lot of the same at Tel Aviv and used to offer prayers to the souls as those were humens. How the amount of this act increased in last 2 decades that no city now seems to be safer even like Bulgaria. This the media should condemn the act because it is cowardly act and against any religion or ethics. So we must all (specially the media) to condemn and present bad site of it as it is bad act regardless it happened to Friend or Foe of the West.

    July 20, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  5. 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.

    All fools who haven't figured this out after that sequential and consistent post should check out this link...


    July 20, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Aaron Chaney

      Remember as a good muslim, I lie and cheat consistently, therefore if you get a big time bug for going to my proposed site, it is in allah's hands.

      July 20, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  6. bunmi

    Dear Fareed,

    As always, you never seem to let me down. Your insightful thoughts and opinions are as valid as they can be. I quite agree with you that there is so much we don't understand about the Syrian crisis. Unlike the other co-ordinated revolutions and uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya etc. the Syrian opposition appears to be faceless. Western nations have found it difficult to step in actively due to this reason – Who is the face of this uprising? Who are the groups to reckon and negotiate with? US, UK and other powers are aware of this, the reason they have shown little or no action in stepping into the crisis. There is more to this war and until it is clear, the killings will not cease, unfortunately.

    July 20, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  7. mardjan

    "But what that highlights to me is not that the Syrian government is less culpable ......, 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."

    Is this the new standard for reporting? We don't really care if what we say is accurate because he is a horrible guy anyway?

    July 20, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • rene of mandeville

      The only ones lying are you and your cuthroat fiends, the muslims.

      July 20, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
      • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.


        July 20, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  8. cameron

    All I needed to know about Syria was that it is a civil conflict. The UN, NATO, the US, and all other countries would benefit by staying out of it until they are directly impacted. Sure, if fighting spills into a neighboring country, that nation's military should push it back. But they should do so putting equal blame on both combatant parties. It's high time NATO and the US stop turning civil wars into internatonal disputes. Let these nations have a little soverignty and solve their internal problems themselves.

    July 20, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  9. cameron

    The only ones allowed to kill muslim are other muslims.
    Allah told me one day when I was abusing my daughter.

    July 20, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.


      July 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
  10. clearick

    It's a waste of time to argue with an ignorant man who knows NOTHING. The US and it's allies could easily invade Syria, but do not wish to do so, as there is no advantage to it. Instead it is waiting patiently for the opposition to develop into a cohesive group that they might support. As it is, Iran is wasting itself trying to support Syria. It's Shia ambitions are undermining it's position and putting extraordinary pressure on Iran.

    What Saeed fails to see is that Muslims are killing Muslims, which weakens them against the rest of the world. This is good as far as I can see, they are the most backwards stupid people on the Planet and none of them have decent governments, or any understanding, just like this fool.

    July 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  11. Christopher Bauer

    There has been a concerted attempt to create two separate strains in the Arab Spring, the "liberal" (good) and the "Islamist," (bad) and to contend that the Islamists had somehow come as interlopers to hijack a democratic movement that, if left to itself would produce a society with Republican and Democratic Parties and an Elks lodge down the street.

    Of course, the only unity is in opposition to the current regimes. There is no guarantee that whatever emerges in Egypt or Syria will give comfort to the US. Indeed, it would appear that one reason for the unpopularity of the former or collapsing regimes is that, since 1973 they refused to go to war with Israel. Another reason for the great unpopularity of the Baathist and Egyptian military regimes was their secular natures. This, perhaps, is not necessarily a bad thing, at least to certain policy makers: the previous regime in Washington decided to create, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamic, rather than secular states.

    July 20, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hindu Judaism, filthy secularism, denial of truth absolute has no place in Domain of Allah, THE TRUTH ABSOLUTE.

      July 20, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  12. Joshua Wertheim

    I haven't read Fareed's article only his headline. But I can say this: we know all we need to know about the Syrian situation. People in Syria started to peacefully protest last year, the Syrian government started slaughtering the protesters, the protesters tried to keep it peaceful but the government made that impossible, and so the protesters took up arms to defend themselves and their families and property. Why anybody wants to complicate what happened is ridiculous, even though it became complex because numerous outside parties became involved, including the US. If we go back to the beginning, when the government was killing its own people for protesting, the solution is clear: no government has the right to murder its people, and whatever has happened since, and regardless of the players now involved, that government needs to be held accountable. Otherwise, all those innocent lives will have been wasted for nothing.

    July 21, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  13. outspoken123


    July 22, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  14. ScottCA

    Allah and Yahweh are just ancient mythologies. Neither Allah or Yahweh Exist they are both lies the same as Zues, Thor, Vishnu, Ra, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    All scientific evidence points to the conclusion that there is no god. And there is no need to envoke the existance of a deity to explain the existance of anything.

    Faith based religions are all fairytale lies made by mental neandrathals who had only a small fraction of the knowledge we now have about the natural world.

    July 22, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Look at results from Atom smasher studies in Switzerland, dark matter, The spirit. get some education before spewing your hinduism, ignorance about creator. It is 360 truth absolute proven by science.

      July 22, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  15. Joel Wischkaemper

    Fareed Zakaria seems to constantly want to involve us in other people's wars and liberation efforts. We seem to be missing the point on who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, and I don't think this country should become involved in any of these liberation efforts without permission from Congress. And indeed... it would be far, far better to get the permission from the American People.

    Closing the economic hatches on a country is a very significant step. We need to be careful about that, but if push comes to shove, we need to use that rather than trillion dollar efforts in countries where we wind up destroying infastructure galore, and then withdraw as the rebel forces move in with snipers. Lets work with the world.. NOT as the Lone Ranger!

    July 22, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
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