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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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