Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.
The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.
During the third and final presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama's Syria policy as a failure to show "leadership" in laying the groundwork for the post-Assad era and called for "a form of council that can take the lead in Syria."
In fact, over the last several months, according to U.S. officials and Syrian opposition figures, the State Department has worked to broaden its contacts inside the country, meeting with military commanders and representatives of local governance councils in a bid to bypass the fractious SNC.
Many in the SNC are accordingly frustrated with the level of support they've gotten in Washington. "The Obama administration is trying to systematically undermine the SNC. It's very unfortunate," one SNC leader said told The Cable.
But U.S. officials are equally frustrated with an SNC they say has failed to attract broad support, particularly from the Alawite and Kurdish minorities. The new council is an attempt to change that dynamic. Dozens of Syrian leaders will meet in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Nov. 3 and hope to announce the new council as the legitimate representative of all the major Syrian opposition factions on Nov. 7, one day after the U.S. presidential election.
The Obama administration sees the new council as a potential interim government that could negotiate with both the international community and - down the line - perhaps also the Syrian regime. The SNC will have a minority stake in the new body, but some opposition leaders are still skeptical that the effort will succeed.
The Qatar meeting will include dozens of opposition leaders from inside Syria, including from the provincial revolutionary councils, the local "coordination committees" of activists, and select people from the newly established local administrative councils.
"We call it a proto-parliament. One could also think of it as a continental congress," a senior administration official told The Cable.
U.S. officials and opposition leaders are calling the initiative the "Riad Seif plan," named after the former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident who was imprisoned after he signed the Damascus Declaration on respect for Syrians' human rights in 2005. He was released in 2011, beaten up by a Shabiha gang in Noember 2011, and finally allowed to leave Syria in June 2012.
Seif is central to the formation of the new council and is seen as a figure with broad credibility with both the internal and external Syrian opposition.
"We have to get [the internal opposition] to bless the new political leadership structure they're setting up and not only do we have to get them to bless the structure, but they have to get the names on it," the official said, noting that the exact structure of the council will be determined in Qatar, not before.
"We need to be clear: This is what the Americans support, and if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you're going to do this now," the official said. "We aren't going to waste anymore time. The situation is worsening. We need to do this now."
Secretary Clinton's personal involvement came when she met with select members of the 80-member "Friends of Syria" group in New York, which included internal opposition figures and several foreign ministers from the Friends of Syria "core group" of 22 countries.
"The New York meeting was designed to tee up the idea that there has to be a new political structure, not just the SNC," the official said.
Two SNC leaders attended the meeting along with four representatives of the internal opposition, although only one such leader actually came from inside Syria. Of the other three, one traveled from Sweden, one from Jordan, and one from Kuwait. They all spoke briefly and then left the room while the foreign ministers discussed the road ahead.
"We wanted more [from inside Syria] but we couldn't get them out. The other people were chosen by people from the inside," the official said.
Even bringing that individual from within Syria proved to be a major undertaking, however, because he didn't have a passport. It took high-level intervention between the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The Syrian caught his flight to New York for the meeting -- but only at the last minute.
The U.S. government will be represented at the Nov. 7 Qatar meeting by Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has been dealing with various opposition groups and weighing in on the composition of the new council, a senior administration official said. For example, Ford pressed for the council to have 50 members in order to include 20 representatives of the internal opposition alongside 15 members of the SNC and 15 other representatives of various Syrian opposition organizations.
The idea is also to create an eight- to 10-member executive body -- made up of technocrats who are not on the new council -- that would be able to work directly with foreign governments on a day-to-day basis on practical items such as the delivery and direction of humanitarian assistance.
"We could finally have an interface to say ‘The needs of this place are greater than the needs of people in that place, so please direct assistance here or there,'" the official said.
The U.S. government is coordinating with governments in Europe and the region to forge consensus on the way ahead with the political opposition inside Syria and outside, the official added.
The Turkish government has been wary of the new effort because it has been heavily invested in the SNC, and the new council intentionally puts the SNC in a minority position.
But Washington's relationship with the SNC has been deteriorating for several months, officials said, and the administration believes the Turks will ultimately come around to embrace the new body.
The mutual recriminations between the Obama administration and the SNC reached a tipping point over the late spring and summer, when two official visits by the SNC to Washington were canceled, one in May and one in July. The May meeting was canceled by the U.S. side because the administration wanted the SNC to visit Moscow first -- a visit that didn't go well, the official said. The July meeting was scuttled by the SNC itself.
But the SNC isn't going away. The group's leaders will hold their own meeting in Qatar on Nov. 3 to establish a new 15-member executive council and potentially a new president.
Other Syrian activists warn that the new council is far from a sure thing.
One external opposition activist with ties to military leaders inside Syria told The Cable there's a risk the Doha meeting could be only the latest example of the opposition's failure to coalesce around a common vision and plan for a post-Assad Syria.
"Right now, the opposition groups are very vague and there's no agreement on who's representing who and what and where," this opposition activist said. "Right now there is a lot of risk that this will be another failed approach that will not achieve anything."
But the Obama administration's efforts go beyond the attempt to stand up the new council.
Although members of Ford's staff have been in communication with representatives of the opposition Free Syrian Army for some time, in July, Ford made his first in-person contact with the FSA during a visit to Cairo. A special conference call was arranged earlier this month between Ford and several FSA commanders, the official confirmed.
The Obama administration is well aware of the growing influence of opposition military commanders and the effort by Islamist extremists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, to gain influence over the direction of Syria's burgeoning civil war.
"There's a rising presence of Islamist extremists. So we need to help these [military council leaders], the majority of them are secular, relatively moderate, and not pursuing an overly vicious agenda," the official said.
But the Obama administration remains reluctant to directly provide weapons to the FSA and has all but ruled out committing U.S. military assets to the fight, despite the hopes of many Syrian opposition figures that the Nov. 6 election will mark an inflection point.
"We are providing to the political opposition all kinds of assistance and we're going to ramp that up, as the secretary has said," the official said. "I don't think there's going to be a big change after the election."