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 U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who was withdrawn from Damascus for security reasons a year ago, plans to attend.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.