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U.S. looks to build alternative Syrian opposition leadership

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The Obama administration has spent the past several months in secret diplomatic negotiations aimed at building a new Syrian opposition leadership structure that it hopes can win the support of minority groups still backing President Bashar al-Assad.

The strategy, to be unveiled at a Syrian opposition meeting next week in Qatar, amounts to a last-ditch effort to prevent extremists from gaining the upper hand within the opposition and to stop the Syrian crisis from boiling over into the greater Middle East.

As envisioned by the Obama administration, the new Syrian leadership will include representatives of revolutionary councils and other unarmed groups inside the country. Territory along Syria’s northern border with Turkey that is effectively under rebel military control is to be organized into an administrative zone with non­lethal assistance from the United States, France and other like-minded governments.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made official what had been the increasingly obvious U.S. disenchantment with the Syrian National Council, the exile-led organization that the administration has backed for most of the past year as the leading opposition group. Clinton and other U.S. officials are fed up with infighting among the expatriate SNC leaders seeking recognition as a shadow government and convinced that it neither represents all ethnic and religious groups inside Syria, nor has legitimacy among on-the-ground activists.

The SNC, Clinton said, should no longer be considered the “visible leader” of the opposition.

“There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom,” she said during an unrelated visit to the Balkan states. “. . . And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution.”

U.S. officials said they expected at least 50 opposition representatives, many from inside Syria, to attend the meeting and choose an executive council containing eight to 10 members. If all goes as planned, the Arab League will bless the process at an upcoming meeting in Cairo, officials said. They declined to name Syrian attendees, citing what they said were security concerns. U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who was withdrawn from Damascus for security reasons a year ago, plans to attend.

Syria experts said the plan appeared to be laying the groundwork for international recognition of an opposition government. 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.

Officials who discussed the plan spoke on the condition of anonymity under restrictions imposed by the administration.

Changes on the ground

As the 19-month-old Syrian crisis has escalated, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and others have charged that President Obama has failed to show leadership on the issue. But administration officials said the latest initiative was made possible only by changes on the ground in Syria over the past several months.

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 use 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.”

Skepticism about plan

Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said administration recruitment of provincial and community revolutionary council leaders inside Syria was “a big step that they should have been doing a long time ago.” 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.” Despite repeated rebel requests for weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Syrian government aircraft, the Obama administration remains opposed to lethal assistance or outside military intervention.

“We do not think the provision of surface-to-air [weapons] is helpful right now, especially when we have, as is widely acknowledged, a growing number of extremists” vying for supremacy within the opposition, the senior U.S. official said. “We don’t think they are the majority, but there are definitely more now than six months ago.”

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.

In September, Clinton said, the administration facilitated “the smuggling out of a few representatives of the Syrian internal opposition” to meet with the international Friends of Syria group during the U.N. General Assembly. The internal leaders, officials said, made clear that the SNC did not represent them.

Not every member of the Friends of Syria group agrees with the administration’s initiative. Qatar and Turkey continue to support the SNC as the principal opposition group, and the administration has spent much of the past several months trying to persuade them to see things differently.

SNC officials, meeting with a separate Syrian opposition group of political and military leaders this week in Istanbul, were critical of the administration plan. 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, Ziadeh said 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.

Gearan reported from Zagreb, Croatia.

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