A U.S.-led initiative to restructure and unify Syria’s opposition has drawn an angry response from an exiled umbrella group.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. no longer considered the Syrian National Council to be the opposition’s “visible leader” and said the administration had “recommended names and organizations which we believe should be included in any leadership structure.”
SNC officials accused Washington of interfering in internal opposition politics while refusing to intervene in support of their struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime.
The U.S. move was “very, very bad, very stupid,” said SNC spokesman Mohammed Sarmini. “This may be an American project, but it is very offensive to the Syrian people. You should support us on the ground, not get into our politics,” he told a McClatchy correspondent.
Washington is reportedly pushing a proposal by the respected dissident Riad Seif (above), to create a new 51-member council, representing the opposition’s diverse political and ethnic faction that would form the nucleus for a subsequent transitional – and largely technocratic – government. The body would reportedly include former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected from the regime in August, representatives from grass roots revolutionary councils within Syria, and exiled groups, including the SNC.
It is not clear yet who will lead. There are a few names. Riad Seif doesn’t want to burn his bridges – while everything is murky and chaotic. But he is presidential calibre. He could be president of a new born republic, but he doesn’t want to become a political football.
The Seif proposal will be on the agenda of a forthcoming opposition forum in Qatar that one analyst believes could turn into an “unholy scrap.”
The forum is likely to witness an SNC backlash against US efforts to help unify the opposition, judging by the reaction of a prominent spokesman for the group.
“I think that no country . . . can interfere or can impose the leaders on the Syrian opposition,” said the SNC’s Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “I call on the international community to back and support the Syrian opposition groups so they can organize themselves, not to interfere in the different groups.”
The Seif plan’s proposed restructuring lacks legitimacy with both internal and exiled opposition groups, he says.
“Even if Clinton wants to back it, it won’t work if it has no inside support,” said Ziadeh, who backs a rival initiative. “After a year and a half you can’t appoint people, the initiative has to come from the bottom up, the people inside Syria have to feel they are part of initiative.”
Some observers believe the Qatar meeting will demonstrate the limitations of a “top down approach to managing a revolution” and is unlikely to be representative of the internal opposition.
“Whatever the outcome of the meeting, it’s still going to be a largely exiled opposition force…. 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.”
Even senior figures within the SNC concede that the organization, which has been riven by sectarian factionalism, has not been representative of the broader opposition.
“It’s a true statement that the SNC should have been more inclusive,” said Molham al Droubi, an SNC representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been accused of covertly controlling the group. “We welcome the more effective contribution of the international community and the US for the Syrian cause.”
“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 with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “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.”
But the initiative has drawn praise from independent analysts.
The proposed restructuring “reflects the growing chasm between those inside Syria waging the civil war and those outside, who will eventually finance its rebuilding,” reports suggest.
Furthermore, the FT reports:
Seif’s initiative has some advantages over previous attempts to create a workable opposition body, which is seen as an increasingly urgent task as the security situation on the ground deteriorates at an alarming rate.
Mr Seif is one of the more credible figures in the opposition, and his proposal has found support in Washington, perhaps because it came at a time when the US was looking for ways to increase its engagement with the Syrian opposition amid widespread dissatisfaction with the SNC.
Even Qatar itself, a staunch supporter of the SNC, is believed to have accepted the idea that its influence will have to be diluted in a broader-based body.
“It’s a good move because it favors the internal opposition –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.”