STATE DEPARTMENT — Syrian opposition leaders opened talks in Qatar on Thursday aimed at creating a broader, more unified council of rebels and politicians fighting embattled president Bashar al-Assad. U.S. officials said stronger opposition leadership could help weaken foreign support for President Assad.
State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Syrian opposition leaders are having "serious and substantive" conversations in Doha and that the United States is "eager for a good outcome."
"We would like to see what the Syrian people would like to see and what they have been calling for, which is a political structure that is broadly representative of all of the groups and the regions of Syria, that is better connected to the situation on the ground," she said.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the importance of these talks, saying the main opposition Syrian National Council, or SNC, "can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition" because "there has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom."
Washington has grown increasingly frustrated by the SNC's failure to include more opposition leaders inside Syria, its personality-driven leadership struggles and its inability to attract a broader cross-section of Syrians, particularly minority Alawites and Kurds.
Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst with the Washington-based Cato Institute. She said, "Amongst many Syrians within the country, they look askance at the exiled Syrians as not having their 'skin in the game' [i.e. a vested interest], as not fighting on the front lines.
"And in some respects, I think that made America's backing of the SNC - even if it was tentative - a sort of kiss of death [causing ruin] further for the SNC. It is not very much respected," said Innocent.
Secretary Clinton's judgment that this "can not be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been in Syria for 20, 30, 40 years" leads some in the SNC to say that the United States is trying to select new leadership for Syria's opposition.
State Department Spokeswoman Nuland said that is not what is happening in Doha.
"We are not inside the room where the Syrians are making these decisions. These decisions will be made by Syrians," said Nuland. "What we are doing - as are some 20 other countries who have representatives out in Doha observing - we are available for conversations with all groups, making ourselves open so that we can meet them and talk to them. But decisions have to be made by Syrians."
Among the plans under discussion in Doha is the creation of a group to coordinate the revolt's military campaign and later choose a temporary government. The SNC would receive about one-third of the seats in that new group.
Nuland said that properly representing all of Syria's ethnic groups in a unified opposition is critical to internal and external support.
"So that people inside Syria will feel comfortable with this group, that their own views will be represented, that they will be protected in a future Syria that this group would be working on, and so that those doubters in the international community who are still clinging to Assad will see that there is a better future," she added.
On three occasions, Russia and China have vetoed tougher United Nations action against President Assad.
Nuland said the international community is hoping for a new opposition leadership structure that better coordinates assistance to areas of Syria that are no longer under government control. This includes the non-lethal assistance being offered by the United States and more direct military support being offered by some Persian Gulf states.