Middle East

Post Election, Obama Gambles on Syrian Rebels

The U.S. hopes it can empower a better opposition in Syria, and at the same time, weaken the role of jihadists.

In the wake of Barack Obama's reelection, the United States has decided to take what seasoned observers call its boldest move yet in the conflict in Syria. In Doha this week—the elegant seaside capital of Qatar, the tiny Persian Gulf nation ranked as the world’s wealthiest by Forbes—America, in collaboration with its Qatari ally, is trying to shape a better and more credible opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, following more than a year of infighting between Syria's notoriously fractious and ineffective resistance.

Wading so directly into Syria's bloody conflict is fraught with pitfalls for the U.S. government. "It's a gamble by the State Department to stake such a strong claim in efforts to restructure the opposition," says Steven Heydemann of the United States Institute for Peace, who has tracked the conflict from the start and who has been part of transition talks with Syrian opposition members. “I think it was a dramatic and risky move. If it works, it will be seen as having been a stroke of diplomatic genius.”

Ever since the start of the uprising 20 months ago, the opposition has failed to coalesce around a strong leader, or group of leaders, who could present a viable alternative to the Syrian government. America and its international allies, meanwhile, have been wary of pumping money and weapons into what they view as a dangerously fragmented rebellion. But as the war drags on and the carnage mounts, America is now pushing for an opposition it can trust—and one it hopes Syrians will, too.

With the specter of the Sept. 11 assassination of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in the former rebel stronghold of Benghazi, any U.S. effort to get involved in another Middle Eastern rebellion is politically risky. On numerous occasions, America has cited concerns that disorganization within the rebel ranks is allowing foreign jihadists to gain a foothold and acquire some of the money and weapons flowing into Syria. But as long as it stands on the sidelines, America risks looking weak, while the very extremists it fears seem to be gaining more influence.

Many Syrians, meanwhile, are angered by what they perceive as U.S. indifference to their suffering. The death toll from the conflict is now approaching 40,000, according to activist groups. On Friday, the Guardian posted a link to a video featuring protesters standing amid the rubble in the Syrian province of Idlib with a banner addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama. "Obama, you destroyed Americas image," the banner read. "Try to restore it again in Syria."

Despite frequent calls for U.S. assistance, in the eyes of many inside Syria, having America put its stamp on the talks threatens to tarnish any opposition leadership that emerges from the process. "The idea that the U.S. would act in such a blatant way to influence opposition affairs rubs a lot of people the wrong way," says Heydemann.

Even as the negotiations proceeded in Qatar, some influential opposition figures were already expressing skepticism. To lead its Doha push, America has put its weight behind Riad Seif, a senior anti-Assad figure who was jailed multiple times for his dissent and is widely respected inside the country and out. But one well-connected, well-financed Syrian exile and dedicated backer of the rebellion, who was having drinks at a dark restaurant in Istanbul on Wednesday night, predicted that U.S. support would not confer legitimacy on Seif, but rather handicap him. Chomping on a fine Cuban cigar, he speculated that Seif might even be a straw man for America. "Believe me, they are not backing him," he said. "When they are backing someone, they don't announce it. They know that would burn him."

The problem of U.S. assistance has been evident among the rebellion's rank and file too. On one closed Facebook group used by Syrian activists, many of whom are still at work inside the country, members reacted with a mixture of mockery and vitriol to America's efforts in Doha. One commenter summarized the U.S. conundrum well. "Look here, let's not use the U.S.A. as a coat hanger," he wrote. "If the U.S.A. intervenes, we say there is something for them in it. If the U.S.A. does not intervene, we say they are leaving us to die!"

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, points out that the logic behind the Doha push is two-pronged. First, the United States is hoping it can empower the opposition and make it into a partner with whom it can work. Secondly, it plans to use that new opposition to streamline—and keep track of—the myriad international funding streams that have been flowing to the rebellion. Up to this point, the disorganized nature of the funding has helped to fuel disunity and mistrust among the various rebel factions.

The Doha plan is a clear bid for the international community to shift support away from the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition body based in Istanbul. The SNC emerged near the start of the uprising, in the summer of 2011. It is largely comprised of Syrian exiles who left the country years and sometimes decades ago due to the Syrian governments suppression of dissent. It is also dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni religious group, which has had little presence inside Syria since the early 1980s, when many of its members led a failed revolt of their own and were subsequently killed, imprisoned, or banished by Assad's father, Hafez.

From the start, one of the main problems facing the SNC has been its lack of connection to the largely spontaneous popular uprising inside Syria. The SNC has also been plagued by infighting, as well as accusations that it has misappropriated much of the money it has received. Many rebels openly call the SNC traitors, and some have gone so far as to predict that its leaders would be killed, or at least driven out, if they tried to take control inside Syria in the event of Assad's defeat.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sounded what many considered to be the death knell for the SNC. "We've made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition," she 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."

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The plan presented by Seif would set up a new opposition leadership body, setting aside a number of seats for the SNC. It would also aim to include new members from key groups that have been underrepresented in the SNC, such as those working inside Syria; minorities, especially from the Alawite sect that forms the backbone of Assad's support; and women, who have played a crucial role in the revolution from the start.

Ahead of the Seif push, in hopes of staying relevant, the SNC traveled to Doha to make its own attempt at becoming more inclusive. The group doubled its membership and upped the amount of representatives from inside Syria. In the end, though, the SNC's perception problem only worsened. New leadership elections have made the group even more Islamist-leaning than before. They also failed to include a single woman among the 40 secretariat seats. One woman who came from Syria to Doha as part of the new membership drive called the experience "the worst thing I've ever done in my life."

Many in the wider opposition have remained skeptical that the SNC is willing to share its leadership role. "The Brotherhood and their allies will not stand for something like this, something aimed so clearly at downplaying their role," says longtime Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid. "In fact, the recent elections in the SNC show that they are baring their teeth by allowing more overt Islamist presence and control."

"The U.S. pushed for Seif's plan," he adds. "But if it fails, it will give [America] more reason to adhere to a policy of minimal involvement."

On Friday, however, all sides were grinding through negotiations after what was reportedly a heavy push from the hosts in Qatar, which has been a main backer of the rebellion and a key source of funding. "Get a move on," Reuters reported the Qatari prime minister telling delegates in Doha, citing a source from inside the talks who predicted that a unity deal was underway.

Even if a new opposition body is created, however, it will still need to win support from the fighters and activists working inside Syria, many of whom Tabler says continue to be critical of the Doha push. "People don't understand what they're doing in Doha, and they feel they're getting left out," he says. "It seems like most of the people in Doha are still people who are from the older and more established opposition. And that's a very different demographic than we see inside the country, especially in the armed element, which wasn't invited to the Doha conference either."

Marwan Maalouf, a human-rights lawyer who runs Menapolis, a Middle East–focused research group, was on hand in Istanbul for the formation of the SNC last year. He worries that the problems that plagued the SNC—of infighting, of a reliance on foreign support, and of a disconnect from the fast-developing events inside Syria—will be the same for any new opposition that emerges in Doha. “For me, it’s really déjà vu,” Maalouf says.