Russia, Syrians irked by US push to overhaul opposition
Residents hold an opposition flag during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Sermada near Idlib on Oct. 2. (Photo: Reuters)
A senior Russian diplomat on Friday warned the West against trying to predetermine the future leadership of Syria while members of Syria's opposition-in-exile have also bristled at the Obama administration's suggestion that Washington will handpick more representative leaders at a crucial conference in Qatar next week.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Twitter that such attempts contradict the peace plan for Syria which was approved by world powers in Geneva in June. “Attempts by Western sponsors of the Syrian opposition to enforce a list of the nation's future leadership from the outside contradict the Geneva agreements,” Gatilov said. “The Geneva communiqué says that a transitional governing body should be formed on the basis of mutual accord of the government and the opposition.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Wednesday that the administration would push for a shakeup in the Syria opposition leadership so that it better represents fighters on the frontline. Washington believes that a revamped rebel leadership could rally wider international support and prevent extremists from hijacking the rebellion.
Russia has been the main supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, shielding it from UN sanctions over a crackdown on the 19-month uprising, in which at least 36,000 people have been killed, according to opposition activists.
The new US push appears aimed at creating a unified leadership that could work more closely with the West. But there are signs of resistance among deeply fractured opposition groups wary of attempts by foreign backers to dictate strategy in the civil war against Assad.
“This direct tutelage and these dictates are not acceptable to the Syrian people anymore,” said Zuhair Salem, the London-based spokesman for Syria's banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition group. The Brotherhood is part of the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is dominated by exiles.
Clinton said the administration was suggesting names and organizations that should feature prominently in any new rebel leadership that is to emerge from a four-day conference starting Sunday in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
Salem said Clinton's remarks show the US wishes to “tailor the Syrian opposition to specific demands.”
The US is pushing for a greater role for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main fighting force on the ground, among other groups. However, the FSA and the Syria-based National Coordination Body, made up of veteran opposition figures, appear skeptical that the disparate opposition groups can fit under one umbrella.
Faiz Amru, a Syrian army general who defected earlier this year, said any transitional government or body created abroad cannot possibly represent those dying in Syria. “Everyone is trying to push their own agendas,” he said dejectedly by phone from the Turkish-Syrian border. “The big powers have hijacked the Syrian revolution.” Amru said he does not support any opposition group, saying that none of them care about fighters on the ground.
The US administration responded to the criticism by saying it was not issuing dictates. “We're not giving them a list,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. “Ultimately it's up to the Syrians themselves to make those choices. This is in no way telling them what to do.”
But Clinton's remarks were seen as damaging by opposition leaders and ordinary Syrians long wary of US meddling in the region. The opposition has been increasingly frustrated by what it perceives as the lack of a coherent US plan to help the rebels.
The shift in the US position came after months of fruitless attempts by the Obama administration and its allies to cajole the notoriously fractious SNC to broaden its base, according to two American officials.
The US wants the SNC to include representatives of all Syria's diverse ethnic and religious groups as well as members of the armed opposition not affiliated with extremist groups or causes, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly.
Those potential members, including opposition figure Riad Seif, are among hundreds of opposition figures that US diplomats have been impressed with in discussions during the course of the crisis, the officials said. Seif is a former reformist lawmaker who was frequently jailed even before the uprising began.
Syrian opposition leaders confirmed that Seif was among the top candidates being considered to head a transitional government. Seif, who suffers from cancer, was beaten up by security forces at a protest in October of last year before he finally left the country. He could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.
In addition to a greater role for the FSA, the US is also pushing for more representation of local coordinating committees and the mayors of liberated cities who are already displaying skills at local leadership and governance, the officials said.
Some have accused the fundamentalist Brotherhood of dominating the Turkey -- and Qatar -- backed SNC and using it as a front. Different branches of the Brotherhood have been gaining power across the Middle East in the Arab Spring uprising against dictatorships -- particularly in Egypt, where the group now holds the presidency and dominated in parliamentary elections.
Hundreds of Syrian opposition figures are expected to take part in the Doha conference. They will aim to choose a new leadership, said George Sabra, an SNC spokesman. More than 400 delegates are to select a 40-member general secretariat, a 15-member executive bureau and a new leader.
The conference will discuss the possibility of setting up a transitional government for Syria, but it is not expected to declare the formation of that body.