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Posted at 02:25 PM ET, 08/16/2012

What it’s like to report on Syria: a Reddit IAmA with The Post’s Liz Sly


Liz Sly
The conflict in Syria has been raging for 17 months now, but extreme security risks have prevented most reporters from entering the country.

The Washington Post’s Liz Sly, has made several brief visits to Syria since the uprising began, and she shared her impressions with Reddit users Wednesday on the site’s IAmA feature, a Q and A forum for people in unusual circumstances.

Here are highlights from the exchange, some of which have been edited:

Q. emjaiz: “The rebels [have] stated they wanted to overthrow Assad’s oppressive regime and implement an Islamic government. What better would that do for the country? Is secularism in government looked down upon there?

A. Sly: The rebels in rural areas are definitely religious in a conservative sense, but Syrians in urban areas have a far more secular outlook, and there are also many minorities in Syria who will certainly not want an Islamic government. Because the government has been so repressive over the past 40 years, there is no tradition of politics outside government. So it is impossible to tell what the majority of people want, which is one reason why what is happening in Syria is so fascinating.

Q. freemarket27: Why is Russia so worked up over keeping Assad in power? Is Russia concerned it is backing the losing side?

A. Sly: I think for Russia this is about much more than Assad, or bases on the Mediterranean or any of the practical issues that link it to Syria. It is about the balance of power and who calls the shots, in the region and the world. For decades America has stood at the center of whatever has been happening in the Middle East (not always to its advantage, but it’s been the key outside player). Now Russia is saying, we're still here, and you can't take our last regional ally. This will definitely work to Russia's disadvantage if Assad falls, but I think Russia sees it as an issue of principle, not pragmatism.

Q. rubenbs: Can you please elaborate why you find this more important than most other stories you've worked on in the last 20 years, including the fall of Saddam Hussein?

A. Sly: To recap what I wrote above, I feel Syria is more central to the region and how it operates than Saddam was. The Iraq invasion was as much about America, its ambitions and ability to project power as it was about Iraq. Iraq was already isolated and weak when the Americans invaded; Syria is at the center of a web of alliances and enmities, including Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and America. If the regime falls, those will be overturned in ways we cannot predict.

Q. SeriousBlack: How important is the defection of the Syrian prime minister and his statements today about the Assad regime crumbling on the inside?

A. Sly: It is, symbolically, very important; practically, less so. Civilian government officials have little influence over the real decisions being taken by Assad, his relatives and his friends and by the security apparatus. Indeed, the civilian government barely exists any more. But, it demonstrates that disaffection with the regime reaches into the highest echelons of society. [Prime Minister Riyad Hijab] was only appointed in June, and Assad must have assumed he was loyal then. It appears he wasn't, so who else?

Q. aarko: Are you working on the ground in Syria, or are you literally based in and working out of Beirut?

How do you feel your work is received by WaPo readers or, generally speaking, by readers in the West? Do you feel that there is sufficient focus on the Syrian revolt from the general public?

A. Sly: I'm based in Beirut, and I mostly work here simply because it has been so difficult to get to Syria. I have been granted three, short official visas since the uprising began, the last one in January. It has recently become easier to sneak into Syria, so I did visit northern Syria last month, and I hope to be going back soon. I feel my stories have been generally well received by readers, but I think it is clear that the Syrian revolt has not captured people's imaginations in the way that the Libyan and Egyptian ones did. The challenge is to find ways to write about it that people will find interesting because it is very important and it is going to have profound consequences.

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By  |  02:25 PM ET, 08/16/2012

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