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November 01, 2012

US Looks for New Civilian Leadership in Syrian Opposition

by Scott Stearns

The Obama administration is looking for a new group of Syrians to lead the rebellion against President Bashar Assad. It says the Syrian National Council (SNC) has shown itself unable to unify the opposition and end the Assad family’s four decades of rule.

The SNC long looked to be the foundation of a transitional authority to replace President Assad. But Washington has watched with frustration at the opposition's personality-driven leadership and its failure to incorporate more minority Alawites and Kurds. They can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition, said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"They can be part of a larger opposition, but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard," Clinton said, adding that Syria needs opposition leaders who represent everyone.

"It is not a secret that many inside Syria are worried about what comes next. They have no love lost for the Assad regime, but they worry, rightly so, about the future," said Clinton. "And so there needs to be an opposition that can speak to every segment and every geographic part of Syria."

That, she said, comes from inside Syria.

"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. There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," said Clinton.

The push from the Obama administration comes as more local governance emerges in areas controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army. Steve Heydemann, who directs Middle East programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the new leadership in these areas have credibilty.

"They pose some very interesting new possibilities for how civilian control might emerge in Syria from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down or from the outside-in," he said.

Politicians outside Syria increasingly risk being eclipsed by FSA fighters, he added.

"One of the big challenges to the political opposition now is that the leadership of the FSA has moved its headquarters inside of Syria. And it increases the perception that the civilian leadership is out of touch, not in direct contact with the people who are on the front lines of this revolution."

Heydemann said the Assad regime sees limits of foreign military support for its opponents.

"They are feeling emboldened. They feel as if Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah are very firmly on their side. They sense the prevarication of the international community in increasing its support for the opposition. And they feel that gives them the advantage. I'm afraid that their calculus in that regard could turn out to be correct," said Heydemann.

Still, Clinton said Washington is not giving up on the mediation efforts of United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.