US seeks more inclusive, effective opposition as step toward a democratic Syria

The United States is withdrawing its support for a leading Syrian dissident group in an attempt to forge a more to a more representative, inclusive and effective opposition coalition.

The Istanbul-based Syrian National Council is too dominated by exiles and expatriates, while endemic factionalism has undermined its credibility, administration officials suggest.

“We’ve made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “They can be part of a larger opposition. But that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard.”

Washington wants to see a more cohesive opposition movement that better represents the country’s diverse ethnic and confessional groups and includes more of the rebel combatants confronting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on the ground.

“This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been in Syria for 20, 30, 40 years,” said Clinton. “There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom.”

Analysts believe that the Obama administration is “laying the groundwork for international recognition of an opposition government,” The Washington Post reports.

But a senior U.S. official said that “we’re still quite a ways from that.” Instead, the official said, the new group will have a “political outreach function,” to build “basic credibility” among Syrian fence-sitters and regime supporters, and an “administrative function,” including the provision of services such as electricity, organized with U.S. and other outside help.

Some might say that “it is too late in coming,” the senior U.S. official said. “A lot of people have been killed, and it’s tragic. But the Syrian revolution itself is changing,” as territory has been overtaken by rebels, indigenous local leadership has developed, and opposition has grown against “a regime that has decided to shoot at unarmed civilians and now uses indiscriminate air power.”

“Would it have been nice if the opposition was more organized four or five months ago? Yes,” the official said. “But what’s going to stem the violence is when those in Syria who still support the Assad regime tell it this isn’t working and it has to go.”

Administration disenchantment with the SNC grew in the summer, the official said, when it became clear that the exile-dominated group was more interested in its own leadership squabbles than in building support inside Syria.

A strategic reorganization may benefit those moderate opposition factions who are at risk of being marginalized by Salafist and violent takfiri elements, according to an analyst who attended a recent Istanbul conference on “Managing the Transition in Syria,” which was attended by more than 80 rebel commanders and in-country civil society activists, and sponsored by the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank headed by activist-intellectual Radwan Ziadeh (above, far left).*

“Developments in the coming week may, I repeat may, finally produce a leadership council composed largely of internal activists that could overtake the SNC and be recognized internationally as a transitional government,” writes Trudy Rubin,  who recently returned from the meeting.

Following this weekend’s SNC forum in Doha, Qatar, a further meeting will include delegates from revolutionary councils and coordinating committees in liberated areas, she notes, while expressing concern that pro-democracy factions are losing ground to radical Islamist elements as a consequence of Western democracies’ reluctance to provide more substantial assistance to the opposition:

“If the Americans and the West won’t help us with humanitarian aid, medicine, and setting up new institutions, the Salafis and al-Qaeda will be shored up,” I was told by Ali Badran, a lawyer and human-rights activist from Tal Rifaat, a suburb of Aleppo that has been bombed and shelled by the Assad government. “The Salafis have money and provide services,” he continued, “so the Syrian people will be sympathetic, and this will be a very big threat.”

The U.S administration’s fresh attempt to engage provincial and community opposition leaders within Syria is “a big step that they should have been doing a long time ago,” Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells the Post:

But he and others said they remained skeptical that the still-fractured Syrian opposition could work in unity.

Another “big question,” Tabler said, is whether military and political opposition factions inside Syria have melded to the point that they can no longer be separated to conform with U.S. policy needs. Rebel military leaders are not invited to the Qatar gathering.

“They are drawing a distinction between unarmed and armed opposition,” Tabler said, “and it’s harder to draw that distinction any longer.”

Other members of the Friends of Syria group, including Qatar and Turkey, will continue to recognize and support the SNC as the leading opposition group, while Washington’s initiative has come under fire from SNC officials:

SNC foreign policy spokesman Radwan Ziadeh, who heads the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, called it a “wrong initiative” and said the “United States is systematically trying to undermine the SNC.”

Leaders at the SNC-supported meeting, said Ziadeh, in a telephone interview from Turkey, agreed Wednesday to hold a “national assembly” within two months inside Syria. He said the SNC was still debating whether to support, or even attend, the U.S.-backed gathering in Qatar.

“The lack of a [US] commitment to military intervention – such as a no-fly zone or airstrikes, but not foreign boots on Syrian soil – is maddening to pro-intervention Syrian opposition figures such as Ammar Abdulhamid, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies,” McClatchy reports:

While Abdulhamid said the Obama administration’s involvement in the Arab protests was “overall a positive one,” Syria is “a nightmare scenario” that was facilitated by government officials’ “lack of resolve, leadership and vision.” Syria, he and other activists say, could end up as a stain on the administration’s otherwise sensible response to the Arab uprisings.

“If they make it through this coming election, I just hope they have plans to give this tragedy the time and resources it requires to be brought to resolution in a manner commensurate with the aspirations of the pro-democracy activists who started this whole thing and were, in effect, betrayed,” Abdulhamid said.

*A former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.


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