The Cable

Clinton explains State Department efforts to build new Syrian opposition council

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."

HRVOJE POLAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Graham threatens Tunisia over U.S. access to Benghazi suspect

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is threatening to cut U.S. aid to Tunisia if the American government is not given access to Ali Ani al-Harzi, a Tunisian suspected of being involved in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.

The Daily Beast first reported last week that Harzi was arrested, at the behest of the U.S. government, in Turkey, where he fled after posting information about the attack on social media. The Turks handed him over to the Tunisian government, where he was held in military custody and then transferred to a prison to await a court trial. Fox News reported Tuesday that U.S. officials are frustrated that they still haven't been granted access to Harzi, and the State Department has refused to comment on the matter directly.

Graham, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee, has been a huge supporter of sending U.S. aid to Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began last year after a fruit vendor lit himself on fire, sparking widespread outrage.

But in his letter Wednesday to the Tunisian chargé d'affaires in Washington, Tarek Amri, Graham said that he would rethink his support for such aid if Harzi remains outside the reach of U.S. officials.

"I have visited your country on several occasions and through my role as the Ranking Member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of State and Foreign Operations, we have included multiple forms of assistance during the crucial new beginning of Tunisia.  However, if these reports are true, our partnership could be in serious jeopardy," Graham wrote.

"I urge you to engage your government to ensure cooperation between our intelligence services, law enforcement officials, as well as their Libyan counterparts, so that we may question this individual about the horrific attacks that cost us the lives of four brave Americans.  Please be informed that providing access to this suspect is of the highest importance to me and many other members of Congress."

Also Wednesday, the White House denied a widely circulated report that quoted former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich saying a "fairly reliable senator" told him that there exists a series of emails from the office of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to a counterterrorism group on the night of the Benghazi attack ordering them to "stand down" rather than mobilize assets to respond to the attack.

"Neither the President nor anyone in the White House denied any requests for assistance in Benghazi during the attack," NSC Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable by email.