ANTIBES, France — The Syrian civil war is one of the most difficult, dangerous and unrewarding stories for journalists.
It is difficult for foreign correspondents to get there. Then, they are usually given access only to events their hosts — either the Syrian government or one of the rebel factions — want them to see.
Facts are hard to check. And they are risking their lives to cover a conflict that the general public back home doesn't really care about. Not even their editors care. Italian newspapers pay freelance correspondents as little as $70 per story for reports from Syria.
Because of the difficulties and danger, much of the reporting is done from neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, which is a bit like covering a riot in Los Angeles from Arizona.
Stories about refugees in neighboring countries are frequent because they are safer to cover and easier for the public to comprehend. The journalists themselves have a hard time understanding the Syrian conflict because much of their information is second- or third-hand and of doubtful origin. Most of the amateur video you see from inside Syria is shot by rebels hoping to influence public opinion and cannot be verified by the broadcasters who use them.
Hats off to the relatively few news organizations that have provided on the ground reporting from Syria. GlobalPost (where I write occasional media columns, including this one) is one of them. But much of the mainstream media coverage of the conflict has been patchy and unreliable.
When the insurgency began two years ago, Western news organizations saw it as just another chapter in the story of the "Arab Spring." The rebels were the good guys. The forces of President Bashar al-Assad were the bad guys. Journalists usually reported rebel claims, but they often ignored facts that did not fit the storyline.
For example, the BBC reported May 26, 2012 that "at least 90 people, including many children, have been killed in Syria's restive Homs province," quoting opposition activists who called the incident a "massacre."
AP and UPI ran similar reports, based on claims by "activists" that the town of Houla had been first been shelled by government forces and then "scores more were butchered" by "pro-regime thugs."
The BBC waited two weeks before publishing a follow-up that quoted Syrian government denials of culpability and admitted that the question of who committed the atrocity "remains a matter of contention."
It took a while for the American media to catch up with the facts and start reporting a story that was closer to reality. Yes, the Assad government was ruthlessly suppressing the insurgency with air attacks and heavy weapons. But rebels were also committing atrocities, including shooting prisoners.
American and European reporting became more nuanced, and journalists started talking about good rebels and bad rebels, by which they meant pro-Western and anti-Western.
But that, too, was a gross oversimplification. There are clearly all kinds of anti-government fighters in Syria, ranging from adrenaline junkies to jihadis, both Syrian and foreign. Some simply want to get rid of the Assad regime. Others want to create an Islamic Emirate in the Middle East.
When reports appeared several months ago in The New York Times and other Western media that CIA agents in Turkey were monitoring foreign arms shipments to rebel groups in Syria, to try to keep weapons out of the hands of the bad guys, that was hardly reassuring. The constantly shifting alliances of rebel fighters make it difficult to track end users of military hardware.
To complicate matters further, America's best Arab buddy, Saudi Arabia, has been financing some of the nastier jihadis.
The Washington military and intelligence community appears to have realized at an early stage that the Syrian civil war was a quagmire that is best avoided. That, and the lack of public support for another costly intervention in the Middle East, explains the Obama administration's reluctance to get deeply involved.
There has not yet been a national debate on what to do about Syria. Op-ed page appeals from charities and pundits urging Washington to "do something" to aid the suffering refugees and stop the slaughter have produced only a minimum response from the administration.
Politicians, such as Senator John McCain, who want the United States to create no-fly zones in Syria look well intentioned but ill informed. Television news, which has the mass audience to grab the public's attention, has little appetite for foreign news these days, and even less for questioning America's foreign policy.
If there is to be no national debate, the media could perform a useful service by explaining the context and dynamics of Syria's tragic civil war.
One of the best "explainers" I saw recently appeared in the French press July 20. The developments reported by Georges Malbrunot of the French newspaper Le Figaro provide a useful reality check. I will summarize some of the points, which this veteran Middle East correspondent makes without taking sides.
1. Rebel groups have recently begun fighting each other as well as against the government.
2. The so-called "moderates" are losing ground to the fanatics (jihadis), who are far better armed and trained.
3. The fanatics may be winning the power struggle inside the opposition, but they have alienated the public in the areas they now control —imposing their version of Sharia law, imprisoning women who refuse to wear the veil, and summarily beheading a man for supposedly insulting the Prophet.
4. The "moderates" of the Free Syrian Army, who now control only 15 percent of the 100,000 to 150,000 rebel fighters, also lost public support when they initially accepted the help of the better armed and trained jihadis. (GlobalPost could not independently verify these figures).
5. Syrians who live in the rebel-held areas are beginning to ask whether a victory of the government forces would be the lesser of several evils.
A UN diplomat in the Middle East who prefers to remain anonymous told the Figaro correspondent that people in the rebel-held areas are "fed up with all these armed groups." He added that if the situation continues to evolve like this, there is a risk that in six months it will turn into a confrontation between the Assad regime and Al Qaeda.
That's a grim prediction and, by the way, more or less what Assad always wanted.