By Elise Labott, CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter
Expectations are low for Sunday's Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul, where representatives from more than 70 nations and international organizations will gather to discuss ways to hasten the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.
The reason is simple. The most critical piece is missing: Plan B.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made no secret of her frustration with the opposition Syrian National Council's inability to offer a vision for a post-al-Assad Syria that all Syrians can sign on to. This week, Clinton said the United States would be "pushing them very hard" to present such a vision in Istanbul.
She's not alone. Many a senior administration official has summed up the SNC in two words: "A mess."
The characterization from European and Arab diplomats may be more diplomatic, but no less critical of the SNC's lack of leadership, organizational skills and ideas.
"They are all over the map, depending on whom you talk to on any given day," one senior U.S. official said. "It's hard to think of what we can do going forward when there is no credible alternative."
Lessons learned from Iraq
More importantly the SNC, made up of mostly Syrian exiles, has not demonstrated it has support inside Syria. U.S. officials are seeing parallels to the war in Iraq, where the United States relied too heavily upon the Iraqi National Congress - a group of exiles run by businessmen Ahmed Chalabi - which was ultimately found to be corrupt and unreliable. When Baghdad fell and the Baath party disbanded, it became quickly apparent the group had no base inside Iraq from which to draw, and the United States was left to run the country.
"The U.S. is hoping these expats can deliver. They are telling you they can, but their actions and infighting are telling you they can't," said the University of Oklahoma's Joshua Landis, who writes Syria Comment, a daily newsletter on Syrian politics. "The Obama administration fears they will implode or be overtaken by actors within Syria who are better connected to forces on the ground. The Obama administration doesn't want to be caught going down the same yellow brick trail as the Bush administration did when it backed the Iraqi National Council only to discover that it didn't have much purchase with Iraqi society."
Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the SNC and the executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington, said the criticism of the group's lack of vision is unfair given the uncertainty of the crisis. "We can come with a general plan, but how can we come up with a detailed plan?" he asked. "That will depend on the key players who emerge from this and we don't' know that yet. We don't know how the regime will fall."
Planning for 'The Day After'
There is no shortage of projects planning for a post al-Assad Syria. Last year the State Department gave modest funding to an initiative run by the U.S. Institute for Peace, aptly titled "The Day After." The project centers around developing a set of recommendations for key sectors, like how to jump-start the economy, establish security and rule of law and write a new constitution. The participants, who include both Syrian exiles and Western technical experts, have met several times in Europe. Although the Syrian National Council is not officially affiliated with the USIP project, because the leadership was wary of participating in an enterprise funded by the United Sates, several of the group's members are involved - including Ziadeh, who called it an "important tool" in transition planning.
But the State Department quickly became disenchanted with the project. Officials including U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who previously served in Iraq, felt it bore an uncanny resemblance to the Future of Iraq project, a year-long State Department study begun in 2002 before the Iraq war, which assembled more than 200 Iraqi lawyers, engineers, business people and other experts into 17 working groups to study topics ranging from creating a new justice system to reorganizing the military to revamping the economy.
The 13-volume Future of Iraq study was a casualty of the fallout with the Iraqi National Council and was largely ignored during post-war planning, even though it predicted many of the problems that ended up plaguing the United States in Iraq for years to come.
"You can get the same people to do the same project for Congo or Zimbabwe," said Ayman Abdel Nour, who served as al-Assad's adviser from 1997 to 2004 before he fell out with the regime and left the country. "And at the end, who is going to implement this plan?"
Nour, who declined to take part in the USIP project, said technical planning for post-al-Assad Syria must include more Syrians who would actually be running the country, rather than relying on top-down intellectual exercises.
He sees the same flaws with the U.S. approach of relying on the SNC as its primary contact with the Syrian opposition. "The SNC is an important mask, yes," he said. "But it's a front desk that we should only be starting with. These people have been out of Syria for 30 or 40 years and don't know the situation on the ground. This is one of the main problems we are facing."
Ausama Monajed, a member of the SNC who has taken part in the USIP project, said while it's important to reach Syrians inside the country, it is unrealistic to expect those under deadly siege by the government to be thinking about the day-after. "The majority of the people can't talk about tomorrow, they are worried about today," he said. "They are in the middle of it and cannot see the bigger picture at this stage. There is no stomach for anyone in the inside to look at a health policy when they are being shot."
Reaching inside Syria
The realization that the crisis will drag on for some time without a viable plan for a post al-Assad Syria that is connected to Syrians on the ground has prompted a re-thinking of U.S. planning.
"The next ruler of Syria is likely to emerge out of the battlefield. The Assad regime will have to be pulled down by force. The Syrian who emerges from the fierce competition underway among opposition leaders within Syria will have developed loyalty, a broad following, leadership, and strategic vision," said newsletter writer Landis. "The spoils are not going to go to the Harvard grad or someone at USIP. No American political party works that way. They give it to the people that worked for them and the ones that win."
Trying to learn the lessons of Iraq, Ambassador Ford and others have concluded the exiles they are currently working with will not be able to get the economy running, turn on the electricity, or fix a pothole "the day after."
While not abandoning the SNC entirely, senior officials say the Obama administration in recent months has begun to cast a much wider net for Syrians who can run Syria the day after al-Assad falls. The United States could no longer put all of its eggs in the SNC's basket.
President Obama himself suggested the shift earlier this week in South Korea when, after a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, he said the U.S. would start aiding opposition groups inside Syria. Officials said non-lethal aid will include secure communications equipment to help opposition leaders on the ground communicate better with each other and with the outside world.
While in Syria, Ford amassed a network of opposition contacts on the ground that has been hard to tap into since the embassy closed and he left the country in February. Now he relies on Skype and other communications technologies to reach those inside. He just wrapped up a multi-city tour in the United States to appeal to Syrian expats who still maintain ties inside the country.
Fred Hoff, the administration's coordinator for Syria, is also pounding the pavement, meeting with Syrians worldwide who have access to "technocrats," the professional class currently inside the country or who have recently left who have both on-the-ground experience and the authority to pick up the mantle during the transition. It could be anyone from a former finance minister who can work on a program to prevent looting to a civil servant in the health ministry to a former military official who can offer ideas for disarming the militias.
Ford and Hoff also are increasing their outreach to Christian groups, business associations and revolutionary councils inside Syria, which are organizing civil resistance, providing services to the people and are increasingly becoming the de facto representation of the Syrian opposition.
Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, is trying to bridge the gap between the exiles and those Syrians on the ground. He's bringing together small groups of Syrian experts to brainstorm ideas for a transition, which he is feeding to opposition groups on the ground in Syria who the United States is now trying to reach. "We don't have a political agenda and aren't tabling a plan," Abdulhamid said. "This is to raise public awareness and highlight the issues we are going to be facing once Assad falls. There needs to be a public debate and we want to empower Syrians to do that."
Molham Aldrobi, a member of the SNC who serves on the Muslim Brotherhood's Executive Council and has taken part in both the USIP and Abdulhamid's projects, believes the opposition on the ground will eventually produce the "alternative" the U.S. and others are calling for. But he said more support for the opposition is needed, and that will determine who follows Assad and how much influence the international community will have on that person.
"Bashar al-Assad needs to know the world means business and so do the Syrian people," he said. "The longer it takes, the more unstable this region will be and the worse the situation will be in the future. Or else the international community may find they won't like who gets in. Because that person is going to say, 'hands off, this is mine.'"