Struggling to define the Syrian opposition


In the weeks before he defected from Syria, then-Prime Minister Riad Hijab put feelers out to contacts in the United States and other governments.

In addition to ensuring his family got out of the country, Hijab wanted guarantees that he would not be persecuted for his role in the government of President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. officials say.

“He wanted assurances from the opposition that a post-Assad Syria will take into account all Syrians, including minorities, and there will not be revenge attacks on those who at one time supported the regime,” one administration official said. The official described Washington’s role as that of a “middleman.”

The United States was able to produce a chorus of voices from the Syrian opposition promising that Syrians planning for a post-Assad transition are committed to ensuring human rights for all Syrians, including minorities. But that’s far from a guarantee for Hijab or for any defector.

Herein lies the problem with Syrian opposition. Although American officials have sought to broaden its outreach within the Syrian opposition, Washington hasn’t been able to identify a group of Syrians inside the country that U.S. officials believe will be calling the shots the day after the regime falls.

There is a grassroots political opposition with viable political structures on the ground in Syria. Revolutionary councils and Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) are organizing civil resistance and coordinating with the country’s armed opposition.

In some areas, the opposition serves as de-facto local governments by providing services to the Syrian people. Yet more than two years into the conflict, there is precious little harmonization between these groups and the Syrian National Council, the primary organization interfacing with the international community, which is made up of expats and which is roundly criticized inside the country as a bunch of dilettantes.

It has been difficult to connect with Syria’s indigenous political opposition since the U.S. closed its embassy and withdrew its personnel in February. But in recent months, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford has led U.S. efforts to step up those contacts.

Ford and Fred Hoff, the administration’s coordinator for Syria, have traveled the globe meeting with Syrians. Using Skype and other communication technologies, they’ve sought to maintain ties inside Syria with “technocrats,” the professional class currently inside the country or who have recently left. This key group has both on-the-ground experience and the authority to pick up running the government during the transition.

For weeks last month Ford was holed up in Cairo with members of the opposition, working with them to put flesh on the bones of a transition plan for a post-al-Assad Syria announced last month. The opposition is soon expected to announce specific names that will be in charge of various tasks related to the transition in the event al-Assad falls.

The effort involves a cross-section of Syrians from within the country, including tribunal leaders and members of the minority Christian, Druze and Allawite communities.

“There is an extremely active connection between the Syria on the inside and the outside,” one senior official said. “A tremendous amount of back and forth. People are coming in and out all the time.”

Still, officials and diplomats involved in efforts to organize Syria’s political opposition acknowledge that any transition plan hatched outside Syria’s borders will be a hard sell to those risking their lives every day of the revolution.

“We’ve made clear to the opposition they need to go back and socialize these ideas and plans to folks inside Syria,” another official said. “There is definitely not as much of that as we would like.”

Until now, the Obama administration has focused much of its assistance on non-lethal aid for the political opposition, working through the Friends of Syria group, providing medical and humanitarian aid and working to unify opposition groups. This includes providing equipment and training to students, journalists and civil society organizations to help them strengthen institutions which could take part in a post-al-Assad Syria

Only recently, through a covert presidential order, has the administration begun to provide intelligence and help allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar vet groups to see which are extremists and which are worthy of receiving arms. Officials say don’t see the shape of American assistance changing anytime soon.

“The whole idea of doing anything more is not on the table,” one senior official told me of the possibility of military aid. “Our sole job as of now is to plan for the day after.”

In Turkey this past weekend, CNN’s Ivan Watson reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Syrian opposition activists, asking them about those still inside the country.

“She wanted to know who the U.S. should give money to, and who they should not give money to,” one activist told Watson.

The refusal of the U.S. to increase its aid to the armed opposition, which could give it a fighting chance against al-Assad’s forces, begs the question of whether the United States is truly ready for the “day after” to be tomorrow. Some officials in the administration argue Ambassador Ford must make further progress with the opposition before the U.S. intensifies its aid to the FSA beyond the current non-lethal package.

Part of that progress is ensuring Syria’s new rulers refrain from retribution against the military, government officials and regime loyalists. The administration is being careful not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq, where transition planning centered on working with a bunch of expats in the Iraqi National Congress who never made it to Baghdad. A security vacuum and collapse of the government after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein led to chaos and paved the way for an insurgency which lasted for years to come.

Officials now say the United States wants a “soft landing” that keeps institutions intact.

“We want the bloodshed to end but it needs to end apace with political developments,” another official said. “So when Assad goes, there is not more bloodshed.”

The University of Oklahoma’s Josh Landis, who runs the blog “Syria Comment,” warns that U.S. reluctance to arm the opposition puts it at a disadvantage in helping shape the post-al-Assad climate.

Landis points to a climate where complete lack of unity within the opposition has helped al-Assad take advantage of the civil war to live another day. Reports currently suggest as many as one hundred militias or more are operating throughout Syria, rarely coordinating among each other, similar to the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s.

If Syria is left in ruins after a protracted sectarian conflict, Landis predicts the idea of Syria rising out of the ashes with expatriates imposing rule of law will seem very farfetched.

“Ultimately the ones who win this will be the guys with the guns,” Landis predicts. “They will have the power and will make Syria in their own image. They aren’t going to fly in a bunch of doctors and lawyers and engineers in to tell them how to share the wealth.”

Secretary of State Clinton has used the frustration with the opposition as one of the biggest reasons for not providing it more support.

By helping to better connect its disparate actors, Washington would lose its best excuse not to wade further into the conflict in Syria. But in doing so, it would find its most credible candidates for not only ending the conflict, but undertaking a transition once they do.

By Elise Labott