By CNN Senior State Department Producer Elise Labott
As international pressure against the Bashar al-Assad regime intensifies, the Syrian opposition says it has been taking steps to better organize its efforts.
Activists say Syria's disparate opposition groups within the country are working toward a unified front that includes classic opposition figures from all sects and backgrounds as well as representation from the two main opposition groups.
In an interview last week with CBS News, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged the opposition to get its act together. While praising the Syrian protesters risking their lives, Clinton said she has yet to see an organized opposition for the U.S. to deal with.
"There is a lot of sort of beginning sprouts of such an opposition," Clinton said. "But there's no address for the opposition. There is no place that any of us who wish to assist can go."
Pointing to political and religious divisions within Syria that make dealing with the opposition a challenge, Clinton said the U.S. was encouraging the opposition to "adopt the kind of unified agenda rooted in democratic change, inclusively. So if you're a Christian, if you're a Kurd, if you're a Druze, if you're an Alawite, if you're a Sunni, inside Syria there will be a place for you in the future."
While recognizing the opposition is fragmented, activists say they are trying to heed that calls. By the end of August, activists say, two of the country's two main opposition groups - the Local Coordination Committee and the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union - are expected to formally consolidate into one main opposition group tentatively called the Syrian National Council.
"The next natural step after the formations of dozens of medium to large opposition groups was the merger of many, and the formation of a national council coordinating their work and presenting their demands to the world cohesively," said Ausama Monajed, a leading Syrian dissident based in London and Washington, working with leading opposition figures and grass-roots activists inside Syria. He said the new group would be "focused on creating a stable and united opposition front that would contribute to a stable and united Syria post-Assad."
Both U.S. officials and activists say that although the fledgling opposition has been making impressive efforts to streamline their activities, it has its work cut out for it. They cite little coordination, either among opposition groups inside and outside Syria or within Syria itself. Additionally, they say, the opposition has little, if any, traction with young protesters on the streets.
Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed that it was important for Syrian activists to speak with one voice, because it would give the international community more confidence to support them. But, he cautioned, the need for this cross-section of groups to agree on a credible transition plan would be much more important than the mere act of merging of the groups.
"What Syria needs is one body which can talk in an articulate way about what a post-Assad Syria looks like," he said. "Whether or not they can coalesce around a credible post-Assad agenda remains an open question."
Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that "given the intense oppression by the Assad regime, to ask the opposition to get itself organized and united is unfair."
"That they may be able to do it is remarkable and encouraging," Abrams said. "And it ought to get a robust response from the Obama administration in place of the continuing hesitation to break with Assad."
Monajed said the council would not fashion itself a transitional government but rather "coordinators and advisers" who could "formulate a transition plan that would satisfy the aspirations of all Syrian parties." The goal is "inclusiveness," he said.
Once the groups formally merge, the new unified opposition will meet to form a transitional council to include representatives for Syrian businessmen, tribal leaders, Alawites, grass-roots organizers and youth activists, as well as senior members of the military, he said.
"We are already liaising with may of these groups while providing an open-door for those with the regime to switch sides," Monajed said, adding that high-level defections have occurred, not only in the military but in the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
"They just need to be announced and enacted when the time is right," he said.
Clinton met with members of the Syrian opposition for the first time last month, but several Syrian activists say they have been meeting with various agencies across the administration on a regular basis. On Tuesday, a group of Syrian activists and energy experts met with administration officials and presented an assessment on the impact that possible U.S. sanctions against Syrian oil and gas sectors would have on the regime.