By Jill Dougherty
As more areas in Syria slip from control of the Syrian military, the United States is training local opposition members how to run a local government free from the grip of the Assad regime.
The State Department says it is running "training programs" for the members of opposition local coordinating councils in "liberated" areas who are beginning to re-establish civilian authority. The programs help them on issues of civil administration, human-rights training and other services.
The council members are learning "the kinds of things that they might need from the international community as they begin to rebuild their towns," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in her Wednesday briefing.
"They're asking for help in how to budget. They're asking for help in how to keep utilities running. How to ensure that the institutions of the state that, you know, provide services to the population, come back up and running. So we are open to supporting all of those kinds of needs," she explained.
Nuland called it a "first round" of training, tailored to help form a nascent democratic society, even before President Bashar al-Assad is gone.
"It also gives us an opportunity," she said, "to talk to them about inclusion and protection of minorities and all those things." The first step is to assess the need, she explained. Training could get more detailed as the opposition requests what it needs from the international community.
Concerned for the security of the new administrators, State Department officials are reluctant to provide details of the training programs, but Nuland said the department is running the programs outside of Syria for those who can exit and return to Syria. For those who remain inside Syria, there are what she called "pretty extensive contacts."
In addition, the department runs programs in Istanbul that train Syrian student and women leaders, as well as members of the media, in areas like justice and accountability.
Just how much of Syria is out of regime control is unclear. Nuland said it is a "mixed picture."
"Great swaths" of the country have now been wrenched away from the regime in the north and the east and, increasingly, between some of the major towns, she said, but the fighting is intense in Aleppo, Damascus and some of the major population centers.
The opposition, however, remains deeply divided, unable to form a cohesive front let alone a transitional government. Tuesday a top member of the opposition Syrian National Council, Bassma Kodmani, currently residing in Paris, quit the organization.
Nuland sidestepped questions about the Syrian National Council's disorganization, saying only that Kodmani "made absolutely clear that she intends to remain committed to the cause of a new day, a democratic day, in Syria. So how she chooses to do that is obviously her decision."
The United States, she said, "from the beginning" has seen the council as "a legitimate representative" of the opposition movement, "but we never embraced them as the sole representative because the Syrians themselves had a number of other groups."
For now, the Obama administration appears frustrated at divisions between the "external" opposition - those located outside of Syria - and the "internal" opposition who are actively involved in fighting the Assad regime.
The United States has supported efforts by the Arab League to help the external groups - "no matter how they label themselves," she said - to come up with a democratic code of conduct as part of a strategy for a post-Assad transitional government.
The objective, she said, "is that will be a pluralistic system that, whether you are Sunni or Allawi or Druze or Christian or Kurd, or anybody else - man, woman - you will feel safe. You will feel part of the new Syria. That's job one as we see it. To ensure that we are all talking about a democratic Syria before they get to the point of picking leaders."
A senior administration official, however, told CNN that "no one is under any illusion" that post-Assad leaders will come from the external opposition. Speaking on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, this official said the internal opposition members are the ones with "legitimacy, with street cred," because they have been risking their lives in the fight against al-Assad.