Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday announced the U.S. would be shifting allegiances in Syria after nearly two years of trying to empower the Paris-based Syrian National Council made up of mostly Syrians in exile.
“This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have in many instances not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years,” Clinton told reporters on a trip to Croatia. “There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom. And there needs to be an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians.”
Clinton said the U.S. would be looking to cobble together a new opposition with members drawn from two groups working within Syria to bring down the regime of President Bashar Assad, as well as expatriate leaders. She said the SNC will still represent up to a third of the new council, which will have about 35 to 50 members and will include in addition to the SNC, Malah’s Syrian Patriotic Group, Kiyali’s National Bloc, and possibly the new “People’s Committee” from both inside and out of Syria. That council will be formed in Doha, Qatar, early next week. “We have recommended names and organizations that we believe should be included in any leadership structure,” she said. “We’ve made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. 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. So our efforts are very focused on that.”
The move is a major shift in U.S. policy in Syria, which up until this week had focused on unifying the SNC and other external opposition groups. Even in that, the U.S. struggled to force the SNC to agree to work with the remnants of Assad’s regime after his potential departure, and to address differing priorities amongst Syria’s ethnic sects: Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, Druze, Kurds and Shias. A meeting in Cairo over the summer included fistfights and thrown furniture.
The change reflects the growing chasm between those inside Syria waging the civil war and those outside, who will eventually finance its rebuilding. “It’s a good move because it favors the internal opposition – they are the ones actively taking down Assad,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We’ve been talking to Tansiqiyat — LCCs — inside, and now we are working directly with local and revolutionary councils. SNC plays a role but not lead.”
But one problem, Tabler says, is that the U.S. is still not engaging with armed groups. “This is important because the revolution turned armed a long time ago,” Tabler says. “We need influence and leverage with them to help make our plans stick.” The U.S. has been leery to provide arms to the opposition given what happened in Libya. After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, many of those arms and Gaddafi’s caches ended up in the hands of terrorist groups. There is also concern that given Assad’s bloody massacres of Sunnis – Syria is 70% Sunni while Assad is Alawite, a group representing only 11% of Syrians – arms given to Sunni groups would be used in revenge ethnic killings. They also so far have refused to support the Saudi and French backed network of Revolutionary Councils.
The new entity, pushed by U.S. Ambassador-in-exile Robert Ford, also doesn’t go far enough to include a broader range of political groups on the ground. “Whatever the outcome of the meeting, its still going to be a largely exiled opposition force — even with supposed inside representation — and there will inevitably be a disconnect between this organization and the organic protest movement,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “ I can already think of a number of very important and influential leaders, both rebel and political, who have been left out. Thus, there is already an element of the US “picking” the leaders, rather than letting the Syrians do it themselves.” A top down approach to managing a revolution, however well intentioned, is rarely successful.
Indeed, many feel that Clinton’s reorganization is too little too late. “The opposition Secretary Clinton is trying to unify has become largely irrelevant, even infusing it with elements from inside may not be sufficient,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian exile who is active in the opposition in Washington. “Syria’s current fragmentation necessitates working with local groups, that is, the rebels and whatever political forces are coalescing around them.”
In announcing it the way she did, Clinton also alienated one of the few friends the U.S. has amongst the Syrian opposition, the SNC, which announced it would hold its own meeting just prior to the Doha gathering as a snub to the U.S. “The SNC will fight for its survival, many opportunists will fight for inclusion, seeing a window in Clinton’s announcement,” Abdulhamid says. “It’s going to be a free for all and a freakshow in Doha. The U.S. should have worked on this quietly.”
And all of this could be for naught. With the U.S. elections less than a week away, whatever group expected to be announced in Doha next Wednesday could be short-lived should Republican Mitt Romney win the presidency. Romney has said he would do more to empower and potentially arm groups fighting on the ground in Syria, focusing more attention on those groups than the non-armed political ones gathering in Doha. Finally, none of these moves are likely to stem the violence in Syria, which has already claimed 36,000 lives since March 2011.