Struggling to define the Syrian opposition
Riyad Hijab speaking in Quneitra, Syria in November 2008
August 13th, 2012
01:00 AM ET

Struggling to define the Syrian opposition

By Elise Labott

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 a year and a half  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.

soundoff (51 Responses)
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    June 21, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  2. dbp49

    "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."

    And well it should be. Those who are unwilling to join the fighters on the front lines in actual battle should not be the ones to decide what to do with any victory that is gained by the blood of others. And I fear that this will also be reflected in post-revolution Syria, when the World wants their say in the new government. If they have refused to share in the bloodshed, can we then expect the survivors to share with us?

    August 14, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  3. sofia

    Watch and listen carefully to the Truth on Youtube."The Syrian Girl with Alex jones show"

    August 14, 2012 at 1:27 am | Reply
  4. Anthony

    I still fail to see why this is our problem. Syria was a threat to US interests. It appears to no longer be one, we have no idea who the opposition is. I am perfectly happy to stand on the side and let the Syrians figure this out among themselves

    As for the humanitarian crisis, help Turkey and Jordan with the refugees. If you know a good charity that will not send my contribution to terrorists let me know. Otherwise stay out. Hope Assad goes and something better Replaces him but otherwise stay out.

    August 14, 2012 at 1:17 am | Reply
  5. Flanker

    The biggest problem with the USA is that they underestimate Russia and China. The dance has stopped time to choose another partner.

    August 13, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  6. gilbert

    my opinion on defectors is why didnt they join the opposition fighters before asking for asylum? does the syrian president and his family deserve asylum after they turn and run? of course the answer is "NO".

    August 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • D. Berkowitz

      oooooohhhhh,...Gilbert – we'll get hold of this nasty man and take turns turning him into a true Christian.

      August 13, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Reply
  7. Jason

    Well at least their spokesperson and mentor seems to be Hillary Clinton. Their monthly pay check comes from Saudi King Fahad. Their base provider isTurkey. They come from all over the world and still called Syrian rebels.

    August 13, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • BaldEagle

      Stop the disinformation. Hillary Clinton is speaking for those who can't speak for themselves. She is one brave, outspoken lady.

      August 13, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
      • Flanker

        Its not his fault you cant accept the truth and wrap yourself in a patriotic flag of lies . tell you what homie, get a Jet to Turkey head to the border and hitch a ride to Allepo or Latakia and give us a call. Until then stop mumbling.

        August 13, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Reno

      I read an article from a field jounalist that Alquida is now in syria and well armed and financed, the word the jounalist used was " Alquida is loaded with cash" and paying people to join them. I wonder who gives them the cash and the arms lets take a wild guess,Saudi Arabia? But dont worry you will be drafted to go fight Alquida once they take over Syria like they did Afghanistan. War is always good for economy, until ofcourse when S-H-I-T hits the fan then its time to develop new philosophies and write tons of poetry about peace and human soul and dignity and C.R.A.P like that. LOL

      August 13, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Reply
  8. nik green

    The rebels in Syria are largely al Qaeda fighters working alongside pro Western elements trying to topple the Syrian regime. A very similar situation happened in Libya during the so-called "Arab Spring" when rebel forces largely consisting of al Qaeda militants were fighting alongside NATO troops and airstrikes, eventually succeeding in overthrowing the Gadhafi government. The flag of al Qaeda was seen flying over government and office buildings in Benghazi and Tripoli following the death of Col. Gadhafi. If Osama bin Laden were still around, he would be very proud of his NATO and US aligned group.

    August 13, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Reply
    • Free Syria for ever

      Al Qaeda did not exist when Hama rose up against Hafez Al Assad, the father of the current brutal dictator, and Hama was then levelled to the ground. For several decades now, the Assads have terrorized the whole country (Muslims and Christians and Jews and Yazidis and Druze), and they have all risen up now to put an end to his reign.

      August 13, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  9. saeed

    the west consists of a human race that is different from the other human races russians are geneticaly different from western europeans, chinese are different from western europeans, indians are different from western europeans, africans are different from western europeans and mexicans are different from the western european genetics. what u see in syria that is called west against east is in reality a race war the western europeans that lose in every thing in the olympics every sport think there genetics are better then the rest of the world. they want to establish a geneticaly hierarchic genetical order for the world a kind of cast system where the western europeans are born automaticaly into a life of riches and wealth and power. thats why russia needs to nuke britain ireland new zealand westafrica australia usa denmark norway and sweden to the prehistoric age.

    August 13, 2012 at 10:40 am | Reply
    • Rocket scientist

      Your genetic theories are absurd. Please go back to school and learn some more about genetics (and politics).

      August 13, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  10. Taskmaster

    The muslim brotherhood is in charge of the Syrian REBELS. The muslim broterhood started the rebellion.

    August 13, 2012 at 7:26 am | Reply
    • Free Syria for ever

      In your dreams. Syria could not care less about the Muslim Brotherhood. These are day to day people fighting for their freedom.

      August 13, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  11. melvin polatnick

    Changing the Alawite advantage cannot be done with compromise. The civil war is about kicking out Assad’s favorites and replacing them with millions of unemployed Sunnis. Postal workers were thrown from roofs; this is only the tip of the iceberg. Survival conscious Alawite are jumping ship, they are converting to Sunnism.

    August 13, 2012 at 6:26 am | Reply
    • Vitaly

      Unemployed Britons don't throw postal workers from roof tops. If they did, they'd be imprisoned for murder and rightly so. In fact, most of the public would call for the death penalty to be reinstated. Imagine if an ethnic or religious minority starting lynching Christians in a modern European state or forcibly converting them to Islam. That seems to be what you're advocating. In that case, the public would want their government to intervene as decisively and harshly as possible.

      What we come back to is the concept of a secular nation state and its response to terrorism. Liberal interventionism is moral condescension. It is also reasonably opposed – as an ideology – by the conservative position that national stability and the rule of law is all that preserves civilization. At the same time, any nation that assists the terrorists with materiel is effectively supporting international terrorism and Al Qaeda.

      August 13, 2012 at 7:24 am | Reply
      • Free Syria for ever

        Like the IRA did not commit crimes. In every revolution, some get carried away. They will be brought to justice. 99.99% of the freedom fighters in Syria are not like the criminals in the Shabiha. Just read about the massacres the Shabiha have committed in Syria against innocent civilians.

        August 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
  12. Yoshi Togukawa

    Omar is a believer that everything is someone else's fault. This situation would.t exist if Assad would have applied the reforms he promised. But no, let's blame others for our shortcomings. Never our fault. Got some news for you. Instead of seeing plots everywhere, are Syrians capable of solving their problems? Obviously not. We should stay out of Syrian problems. They are "adults". The will have to solve their problems, while still blaming everyone else.

    August 13, 2012 at 6:24 am | Reply
    • Free Syria for ever

      What reforms? Those meant to keep himself and his family and his clan in power against the will of the Syrian people?

      August 13, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  13. Brian Smith

    LOL...well, even with assurances, there are revenge attacks in every other 'arab spring' uprising, so why do you think you are so special to get immunity? Nobody is going to assure your safety for you and your family until you die, sorry. Maybe Assad would, but you defected, so don't count on that either.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:58 am | Reply
  14. Vitaly

    However you want to spin it Mr Haydar you're talking regime change through military intervention.

    Why should the US and UK taxpayers fund yet more destabilisation of the Middle East? Where is the democracy in allowing support -without a public vote or even discussion – for Al Qaeda and terrorists? The same Al Qaeda who butchering American service men and women in Iraq. You are seriously denying that Al Qaeda are involved against all the evidence? It's pretty obvious that Russia have a base in Tartus. It's also pretty obvious that Russia are not friends of NATO.

    Have you heard of the UNSC and the vetoes by Russia and China or did you somehow miss this? What do you think will happen to US/Russian relations if this insane policy escalates? Russia are perfectly justified in confronting the US militarily to protect their interests.

    What is the difference between Gaddafi funding the IRA and the British government funding the Syrian terrorists? Supporting terrorists against a sovereign government is an act of war and those politicians who do so, such as William Hague, are justifying the funding of terrorists against their own nations.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:30 am | Reply
    • BaldEagle

      We are funding people who have suffered for too long. We are not funding terrorists. Though I am an American citizen, I am delighted at our British allies.

      August 13, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  15. mmi16

    For any revolution to be successful there needs to be leadership – It was required in the US Revolutionary War – it is required in Syria. There does not appear to be any cohesive leadership in what is taking place in Syria. There are multiple factions that are all against Assad, but there is no combined leadership of all the factions.

    If Assad were to fall right now, there would still be a civil war amongst all the factions. A rotten situation in which to champion freedom.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:19 am | Reply
  16. crazy world

    lol

    August 13, 2012 at 3:14 am | Reply
  17. sigmond seamonster

    Netanyahu for US President! oh wait....he already is.

    August 13, 2012 at 3:09 am | Reply
    • Yoshi Togukawa

      Been spending time at conspiracy sites?

      August 13, 2012 at 6:17 am | Reply
  18. Michael Greenwald

    This is another of the many articles of disinformation and it would not surprise me at al to find out that Ms. Labott, allegedly a CNN employee who doggedly defends the US policy, actually worked for the CIA.

    Search as we may it is hard indeed to find any good guys in this mess and only the very foolish indeed would think that Saudi and Qatar are our "allies." They are just countries that sell us oil and occasionally our political agendas coincide. But you may recall that Osama and most of his pals came from Saudi as dos the Islamic fundamentalism that is setting fire to the whole world in the name of the rise of the 6th caliphate. Right now our pals supported by the CIAS are busy expelling the Christians and destroying their churches, about 50,000 of whom have already fled–it's so good to have friends!

    "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." Well, duh, I didn't know that! Don't worry Ms. Labott, our " friends" the Saudis will provide plenty of guns. They are rich! We made them so.

    The chances are overwhelming that no matter who wins, they will be the "bad guys." What we don't want to happen is to sufficiently enrage the Russians into making Assad and his army into proxy warriors, reigniting the cold war. Sometimes doing nothing is a good choice.

    August 13, 2012 at 2:11 am | Reply
    • MICHAEL WHITE

      Yea, I think we should stay out of this proxy war between Sunnis and Shiites. Not our problem.

      August 13, 2012 at 2:34 am | Reply
      • Omar Haydar

        Mr. White, this is not a proxy war nor is it a war between Sunnis and Shiites, as much as Iran directly and the US and Israel implicitly would have you believe. This is a war waged on the multi ethnic population of Syria by the ruling thugs, who are predominantly Alawite. Most Shiites would even argue that Alawites don't even qualify as Shiites by virtue of their beliefs. When the Syrian regime is shelling or bombing the population centers from the air, they are not distinguishing between Shiite, Sunni, Christian, Druze, or any other faith. They are indiscriminately killing the population. These types of pathetic justifications for inaction are a simple attempt to mask the true intentions – let them kill them all in order to keep Assad in place. As far as the proxy aspect of it, Iran, Russia and Hizballah are actively reinforcing and supporting the regime. No one is officially doing that for the opposition other than a rag tag bunch of volunteers sneaking in. The majority of the weapons they have are not from the outside, but either won in battles from the regime or carried over by those quitting the army and joining the FSA.
        Spare us the pathetic attempt to justify allowing the killing to continue. I think we deserve better. And the Syrian people definitely deserve better.

        August 13, 2012 at 2:51 am |
    • Omar Haydar

      Your comment in my opinion carries more disinformation and spin than the article itself, which is quite an achievement. For the US to take any action now will not goad the Russians into action, as the Russians are already very much active in supporting the regime in its carnage. Your claims of the expulsion of Christians is as bold faced a lie as anyone could state. the main group involved in the expulsion of the minorities of Syria is the regime, just study the history. The US has the opportunity to connect with the Syrian people to build a better future through assisting them or at least leading the international community in protecting the civilians. But instead of doing that and through our intentional inaction disguised as strategic diplomacy, we are thumbing our nose at them and their plight. What shall we expect from them in the future?

      August 13, 2012 at 2:57 am | Reply
      • Michael Greenwald

        Christian and other minorities have been expelled from Moslem countries all over the world for decades and this is quite well known. Many of these exodus occur during social unrest–such as now. As we can see from the press even the Moslem minorities are scared to death of the rebellion and fleeing in all directions. Of course we all know of the hatred between Sunnis and Shiites so it isn hardly a surprise that religious hatred is a part of the turf. Many Syrian minorities cast their lot with Assad and they are justifiably fearful fearful that vengence will be wrecked upon them.

        If the US attempts to enforce a no-fly zone followed shortly thereafter by a naval blockade, this is an act of war, with unpredictable consequences as isn true in any war. Look what happened in Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iran. "Fookls rush in where angels fear to tread." I know we are a bit short in war these days–having just one to fight–but there will be plenty to do once the dust settles and maybe that is a better time for the US to assert itself.

        August 13, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Rafik

      I must agree with Omar Haydar. Bashar only cares about staying in power, and he does not care about who he kills. This is why the US must lead the world and establish a no fly zone over Syria.

      August 13, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Reply

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