By Jamie Crawford with reporting from Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott and Pam Benson
The United States is closely watching how rebel forces operate inside Syria, and what their end objectives might be as the Obama administration weighs whether or not to provide arms to the Syrian opposition.
"Will providing arms to the opposition convince the people who support [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, in many cases because they are afraid of their own existence, or will it simply lead to more fighting - that is the question that we are considering," Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said during a panel discussion in Washington on Thursday on the crisis in Syria.
"Arms are not a strategy, arms are a tactic," Ford said about the deliberation the administration is undertaking on the question, and that a "military solution" is not the best path forward for Syria.
"The president has never taken the provision of arms off the table," he said. "And so, as we think about our policy of sending arms or not, and today we do not, we want to make sure that tactic plays into and helps us achieve a strategy of enabling the Syrian people to reach a political solution."
By Jill Dougherty
U.S. officials are relieved now that Syria's disjointed opposition has finally succeeded in creating a united front.
"What happened over the weekend was huge," a senior administration official told CNN. "I think it's fair to say that most of us were pessimistic, but the opposition did it. They have a long way to go, but this was a major step forward."
Nevertheless, the official admitted: "We are cautiously optimistic at best."
The United States has been pressing the opposition to unite and officials now say the Obama administration is urging the new National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to quickly form a technical working group with which it can coordinate assistance.
By Jamie Crawford
An umbrella group that fashions itself the head of Syria's political opposition should no longer be considered the "visible leader" of efforts to form a government to replace Bashar al-Assad, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday.
Clinton said the Syrian National Council, which is made up mostly of Syrian expatriates cannot alone shape the future of Syria apart from those fighting and dying inside the country amid a civil war that has claimed more than 30,000 lives.
"This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes, but have in many instances not been in Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years," Clinton said during a joint news conference with Croatian President Ivo Josipovic in Zagreb. "There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today."
Her remarks come as preparations are underway for Arab League-sponsored meetings next week in Doha, Qatar, that will focus on the composition of a post-Assad political leadership in Syria.
Key nations of the "Friends of Syria" group met in New York Friday to strategize, once again, on how to give more help to the Syrian opposition. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced another $15 million in aid, for a total of almost $45 million, for what she called the "unarmed opposition."
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.
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.
By Jill Dougherty and Jamie Crawford
As news broke Monday that Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab had defected, the U.S. State Department said it was "encouraged," describing Hijab as the "highest-profile official to defect from the Assad regime."
"When the prime minister of the entire government defects, that's clearly an indication that they're on the way out," acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
But experts on Syria aren't so sure.
"The prime minister in Syria is the head of the government, but the government in Syria doesn't rule the country," Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told CNN. "It's the regime, and the regime includes the security services, the army and the members of the Assad family."
By Elise Labott, CNN
Fifteen months into the crisis in Syria, and the Obama administration is, as one U.S. official describes it, in "a holding pattern," waiting for Russia to abandon its support for President Bashar al-Assad, waiting for sanctions to topple the economy and waiting for an organized Syrian opposition to present a coherent vision for a post-Assad Syria.
As the U.S. waits for what many believe is the inevitable failure of a United Nations-backed plan, American officials say they would rather U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan to pronounce his diplomatic efforts a failure himself.
Senior officials say the international monitors provided for in the current agreement with the Syrian government, however small in number, offer a small buffer against Assad's forces. Additionally, the U.S. and its allies on the U.N. Security Council want Russia to come to its own conclusion that Assad is not living up to his end of the agreement in ceasing the violence, and the plan is a failure. The concern is should the U.S. push for the next step, it would further alienate Moscow, which is skeptical about efforts to push out Syria's president. How the plan fails is as important as when it does, Western diplomats said this week.
"You have the politics part of this plan, and you have what is really happening on the ground," one U.S. official said. "We are going to be in a bit of a holding pattern for a while, debating on whether this has succeeded or failed, and whether it was designed to fail."
From CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty, in Istanbul
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad for what she charged is a string of broken promises and called for new steps to pressure the Assad regime, shore up the Syrian opposition and provide urgent humanitarian aid for the victims of the violent conflict.
"The world must judge Assad by what he does, not by what he says," Clinton told representatives in Istanbul attending the second Friends of Syria meeting, "and we cannot sit back and wait any longer."
The Obama administration last week slapped new sanctions on three more senior Assad regime officials and Clinton praised the Friends of Syria for its decision to form a sanctions working group to coordinate and expand sanctions and strengthen enforcement. "Together we must further isolate this regime, cut off its funds, and squeeze its ability to wage war on its own people," she said.
The Friends of Syria, which includes some 60 nations currently meeting in Istanbul, are creating a Sanctions Working Group, which senior State Department officials told reporters will coordinate sanctions against the Syrian regime and serve as a "clearing house of information on who is shipping arms, money to Assad to assist him in his killing, who is evading sanctions." The officials said the group will use the media and publicity to "name and shame" those who are helping Assad and his regime.
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."