Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged Wednesday that the U.S. government has been working to establish a new council to represent the Syrian opposition, to be unveiled in Qatar at a major conference next week.
The Cable reported Tuesday that the State Department has been heavily involved in setting the stage for the Nov. 7 rollout of a new opposition leadership council, which will subsume the Syrian National Council (SNC), a group of external opposition leaders that the administration has decided is too consumed by infighting and ineffectiveness to represent the Syrian opposition.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford will travel to Qatar for the conference and has been working to craft the new council in a way that better represents a wider array of both internal and external opposition groups. U.S. officials and opposition leaders are calling the initiative the "Riad Seif plan," named after the former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident who has been active in preparing the new initiative.
"We call it a proto-parliament. One could also think of it as a continental congress," a senior administration official told The Cable.
Clinton met with internal opposition leaders last month to work on the initiative, The Cable reported. On Wednesday, asked directly about the effort during a stop in Croatia, Clinton said that the time had come to stop relying on the SNC.
"We've made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition," Clinton said. "They can be part of a larger opposition, but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard. So our efforts are very focused on that right now."
The U.S. government has recommended names and organizations it believes should be included in the new leadership structure, Clinton said, emphasizing the participation of representatives of Syrian opposition groups on the ground.
"We facilitated the smuggling out of a few representatives of the Syrian internal opposition in order for them to explain to the countries gathered why they must be at the table. This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been inside Syria for 20, 30, or 40 years. There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," she said.
"And there needs to be an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians. It is not a secret that many inside Syria are worried about what comes next. They have no love lost for the Assad regime, but they worry, rightly so, about the future. And so there needs to be an opposition that can speak to every segment and every geographic part of Syria ... So the Arab League-sponsored meetings, starting in Doha next week, will be an important next step."
Clinton also said that the opposition must go on record resisting extremist influence in the Syrian revolution and noted increasing reports that extremists are gaining influence on the ground.
After Clinton spoke, at the State Department press briefing, Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner pushed back against reporters' assertions that the State Department was trying to choose Syrian opposition leaders for the Syrians rather than let them pick their own leaders.
"We're not giving them a list... We have recommended names and organizations that we have been working with," Toner said. "We fully recognize that this is a Syrian-led process, that these are Syrians themselves who are among the opposition in Syria that are going to make these choices, and it's the Syrian people themselves who have to decide on what the opposition looks like."
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