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john doyle

It's probably a good thing that Hilary Mantel opened her mouth and made a speech about Kate Middleton getting knocked up and such matters. It gave everybody – simply everybody – something to pontificate about for days and days. Much easier to opine about the Royals and the media than getting acquainted with some of the real horror in the world today.

Events surrounding the athlete Oscar Pistorius in South Africa and the fatal shooting of his girlfriend are another distraction. Lurid, strange and compelling, the story offers so many opportunities for opinions to be meted out about the worship of athletes. Again, it is easier to focus on that story than it is to dwell on the mundane horror of war, of countries experiencing deeply traumatic and bloody conflict. And by that I mean Syria.

Syria: Behind Rebel Lines (CBC, 9 p.m on Doc Zone ) is a rare look inside Syria as it is now. It's a fine piece of journalism rather than a carefully crafted documentary with a forged story arc. And because of that, it is all the more galvanizing.

Most of the reporting is done by veteran Time magazine correspondent Rania Abouzeid and directed by Sylvene Gilchrist, and it is deeply sobering.

It opens in a small town in northern Syria, one that has been destroyed and, as is pointed out to us, is largely devoid of civilians. Almost two years since protests unleashed the first stirrings of a civil war in Syria, the war grinds on in places such as this – remote, barren, ruined. We are introduced to a man in the Free Syrian Army, alone in manning a sniper position by an olive grove. Where once there were families, farmers and businesses, now the only activity is a brutal game of cat and mouse between the rebels and the forces of the regime. We also meet a man who worked in a clothing store in Damascus but returned to his home area when the trouble started. Now he's a fighter and takes a pessimistic view of the future. "All will be accountable," he says darkly, meaning that if and when the regime falls, there will be more bloodshed.

Rania Abouzeid tells us, "There is chaos in the Syrian civil war." She says there are shadowy groups of foreign fighters in the country and "criminal elements" who engage in kidnapping for ransom, looting homes and taking every advantage of the lawlessness.

With two million people displaced and thousands fleeing every week, the chaos has allowed warlords to emerge, but we are told that the current political situation is "like a marketplace." That is, people can pick and choose their allegiance from the elements among the rebel forces.

She meets a group of men she describes as "Islamists who want an Islamic state." Their leader is a charismatic figure who had left Syria for Italy and returned when the Hosni Mubarek regime fell in Egypt. He believed the Assad regime would fall next. A former champion discus-thrower, he's now battle-hardened, claiming to have dozens of pieces of shrapnel in his body, and he has a broken jaw.

To the camera he says, "Yes we are mujahedeen, holy warriors until the fall of the regime. After the regime, everyone can display their wares. I want to stress this point. We will display our wares, not force them on anyone. The people will decide." He also claims to be wary of foreign influences in Syria's future. "We started with a stick and a pump-action shotgun and we will return to the stick rather than allow anyone to force anything on us."

We meet a man, a former civil servant, who now makes rockets for the rebel forces. And we meet a female fighter with the rebels. The woman, who fights on the front line with an AK-47, says she tried to form a women's brigade, but other women weren't interested. An extraordinary figure, she has a personal message for Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria – that's she is coming for him .

There are many vignettes that make the program interesting . But the overall portrait is what makes it memorable and a formidable act of reporting. The war in Syria goes on and on, in bleak outposts where the regime hangs on, having laid waste to the area; on stretches of highway that are controlled by one side, then another.

It's appalling, grim and yet it isn't unknowable, thanks to this act of bearing witness and reporting back. Even as so much else is distracting and lurid, it's better to be aware of the chilly, austere awfulness that unfolds in other places.

Also airing tonight Elementary (CBS, Global, 10 p.m.) continues be an occasional – only occasional – delight. Most of the recent fun has come not from the cases handled by this Sherlock Holmes, but his attempts to teach Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) to be smarter – tonight "Sherlock sends Joan to a suspicious dry cleaners to teach her deductive skills."