The United States has welcomed the formation on Thursday of an umbrella group of Syrian opposition figures, the self-proclaimed Syrian National Council. The group, meeting in Istanbul, said it aims to help topple the Damascus government within six months and form an interim administration.
The Obama administration, which a month ago called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “step aside,” is welcoming the formation of the opposition coalition whose professed aim is to oust Syria's government.
Capping a four-day meeting in Istanbul, a diverse array of Assad government opponents said it has chosen a 140-member Syrian National Council of whom about half are activists inside Syria and were not publicly identified.
A spokesman for the group, French-based Syrian exile Basma Kadmani, said the council hopes to see the fall of the Assad government within six months and to form a transitional administration.
The Istanbul meeting marked the six-month anniversary of the beginning of the uprising against the Syrian government.
At a news briefing here, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner declined the draw a parallel between the Syrian group and the National Transitional Council that replaced Moammar Gadhafi's government in Libya. But Toner made clear that the United States welcomes the effort to unify the Syrian opposition even as, he said, the Damascus government continues to hunt down, oppress and kill its opponents.
“We applaud these efforts," said Toner. "We look forward to the opposition strengthening as it agrees on things like a unified leadership structure, as it builds consensus and articulates a vision for the future of Syria that incorporates rule-of-law, government by consent of the people and equal rights, as well as economic opportunities for all of Syria's citizens.”
Toner said the United States maintains contact with a wide range of Syrian opposition figures in that country and abroad, but that the U.S. role is not to dictate or direct their actions and policies.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met here early last month with a delegation of Syrian American and exiled Syrian government opponents. Two weeks later, President Barack Obama condemned Syrian President Assad for “ferocious brutality” against democracy protestors, saying it is time for him to step aside.
The Obama administration has imposed targeted sanctions against more than 30 Syrian government officials, including President Assad, banned U.S. imports of Syrian oil and gas, and frozen all Syrian government assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction.
On Thursday, the State Department tightened its travel warning for Syria. Citing political volatility, it urged U.S. citizens now in Syria to leave immediately while commercial transportation is still available. It advised other Americans to defer all travel to the country.
Earlier this year, the State Department ordered nonessential U.S. embassy personnel and family members to leave Syria. But the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, remains at his post. Officials here say he has few contacts with senior Syrian officials, but that he meets with civil society members and, when possible, opposition activists.