Behind the US gambit to seek new anti-Assad leadership in Syria

The US pulled its support from the opposition Syrian National Council, based in Paris, this week – a signal that the Obama administration plans to put more stock in rebel forces fighting the Assad regime on the ground.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Residents look at Free Syrian Army fighters as they arrive to fight the pro-government forces, in Haram town, Idlib Governorate, Wednesday, October 28.

With the Obama administration giving up on the exile-heavy Syrian National Council and seeking creation of a more inclusive and representative opposition leadership, some of Syria’s rebels wondered aloud, “What took them so long?”

But the truth is that Washington has become increasingly disenchanted with the Syrian National Council, or SNC – exasperated by infighting among leaders in the Paris-based organization even as rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and local leaders stuck out the war on the ground. But it had held back from real censure in the hope the SNC would right its own ship.

That changed abruptly Wednesday, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in effect handed the SNC a pink slip. She said the US is looking for a new set of leaders to take Syria’s helm into what the US insists is the coming post-Assad period.

“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,” Secretary Clinton said in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. “There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom.”

From the outset of the rebellion in Syria against the Assad regime 19 months ago, the US said it was up to Syrians to choose their own leadership to fight, and eventually replace, Mr. Assad. But the Obama administration has opted now to take a more active role in the creation of a new opposition leadership body for two reasons (besides weakness and dysfunction displayed by the SNC). 

One is that the rebellion has shifted into a civil war. That has raised the profile of the fighters and rebel military leaders on the ground on the one hand, but it has also put a direct spotlight on the need for an opposition leadership that includes all of Syria’s factions and ethnic groups. Without such inclusivity, the next leadership would be at grave risk of overseeing the country’s disintegration.

The second is that the continued fighting and the breakdown of authority have opened the door to Islamist extremists, who appear to be assuming a greater role in the fight to oust Assad. Clinton was upfront about those concerns, saying, “We also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution.”

Formation of this new opposition leadership, in which the SNC would play at best a minority role, is the objective of a conference set to be held in Doha, Qatar, next week. Clinton said the US had submitted “names and organizations” of Syrians it believes should be part of any new “leadership structure.”

Representatives of the Syrian opposition and their international supporters already tried, at similar talks in Cairo in June, to come up with a new “leadership structure.” But that meeting degenerated into recriminations and even fistfights.

The question may now be whether, after another four months of war and more public prodding from Washington, the disparate factions fighting Assad can come together.

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