A call by the US for an overhaul of the Syrian opposition and moving beyond the Syrian National Council (SNC) indicates that Washington is willing to be more active in its efforts to form a more effective opposition against President Bashar al-Assad, experts in Turkey have said.
In remarks representing a clear break with the SNC -- a largely foreign-based group that has been among the most vocal proponents of international intervention in the Syrian conflict, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said a meeting in Qatar's capital of Doha next week represents a chance to forge a new leadership for the Syrian opposition.
“This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but who, in many instances, have not been inside Syria for 20, 30, 40 years,” Clinton said on Wednesday during a visit to Croatia. “There has to be a representation of those who are in the frontlines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom.”
“We've made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. They can be part of a larger opposition, but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice which must be heard,” she was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Ankara, a staunch critic of the Assad regime, is the main sponsor of the SNC, hosting its meetings and some of its leaders. But a Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity to Today's Zaman, stated that Turkey welcomed any initiative which aims to strengthen the Syrian opposition politically. The official described the move by the US as a sign of its willingness to actively shoulder responsibility in forming a more effective and united Syrian opposition.
“From the first day, Turkey has called for the unity of the Syrian opposition. The US has also joined in Turkey's efforts to bring together all segments of the opposition in order to form a more united opposition,” the official said.
The SNC, which has struggled to win credibility as a democratic alternative to Assad, has been criticized by Syrians on the ground for not representing all segments of the Syrian opposition.
Analysts argue that the rift between the SNC and opposition forces inside Syria, who have been gaining more territory in recent months, is widening, adding that the Syrian opposition's failure to unite has strengthened Assad's position and made it more difficult for the world to respond.
Noting that the statements by the US have a “determining impact” on the future of the SNC and the political career of its members, a commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo said, “This is the last warning to the SNC to make the necessary reforms and democratize itself.”
“There were groups other than the FSA in the past. But since they were not active and did not have close relations with the people of Syria, only the FSA survived. Similarly, if the SNC does not work actively to serve the will of Syria, it will be replaced by other, more active establishments,” the FSA commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Today's Zaman.
When asked whether there were qualified political figures capable of forming another group, the same commander explained that the reason why the SNC was unable to embrace all segments of the Syrian opposition was because there were many “political actors who were excluded” from the opposition who are now waiting to join the revolution.
A Kurdish Syrian political activist in İstanbul who wanted to remain anonymous voiced his expectation that a new Syrian opposition would have a more comprehensive approach towards minorities such as Kurds and Turkmen. Recently, the SNC decided to decrease representation of Turkmen, frustrating the community.
Clinton said the Syrian opposition should be inclusive and reject extremism. “There needs to be an opposition that can speak to every segment and every geographic part of Syria. And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution,” she said.
US officials have privately expressed frustration with the SNC's inability to come up with a coherent plan and its lack of traction with the disparate internal groups which have waged the 19-month uprising against Assad's regime.
The largest opposition group, the SNC -- which was formed in İstanbul in September of last year -- was recognized in February by the anti-Assad Friends of Syria coalition as “a legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition,” but infighting and worries over the group's inclusiveness have kept the group from being seen as the sole voice of a growing Syrian opposition movement.
The SNC saw a major blow to its legitimacy when five members left the group citing frustrations over its progress and leadership.
Clinton's call came amid a Syrian opposition meeting in İstanbul on Wednesday. Senior members of the SNC, the FSA and other opposition figures gathered in İstanbul to discuss the formation of a general assembly to elect a government in exile. The meeting ended with a pledge to unite behind a transitional government in the coming months.
Commenting on the move by the US, representatives at the meeting said that no foreign county can impose a leader on the Syrian opposition, adding that the initiative to form an opposition belongs to Syrians only.
US officials are also reportedly disturbed by the SNC's failure to reach out to Kurds and Alawites. Worries over further frictions within the anti-Assad camp grew when the FSA clashed with Kurds in Aleppo last week, leaving dozens of people from both sides dead.
The SNC's current leader is an ethnic Kurd, but Kurds have largely avoided joining the FSA ranks. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the leadership of the FSA and Kurdish representatives in Turkey were negotiating an end to the clashes. The meeting was held in the Turkish border province of Hatay.