Turning the Screw

Why Hillary Clinton Snubbed the Syrian National Council on Istanbul Visit

The secretary of state’s decision not to meet with the fractious group in Turkey may have been a message that America is moving on. Mike Giglio reports from Istanbul.

Kayhan Ozer / AP Photo

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Syrian activists in Istanbul on Saturday, they were asked not to reveal what was said. But the message Clinton sent just by calling the meetings was already loud and clear—and thanks more to whom she decided not to talk with than with whom she did.

In Istanbul over the weekend, international attention focused on Clinton’s talks with the Turkish foreign minister, and the subsequent announcement that the United States and Turkey will analyze the possibility of a “no-fly” zone across the border in Syria—which would constitute a monumental international step in the bloody conflict that continues to rage in the bid to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Associated Press today that plans for a no-fly zone are “not on the front burner.” And in the large community of Syrian revolutionaries living in Istanbul to take refuge from the war, talk of the Clinton visit has centered on her snub of the main opposition group based in town.

The Syrian National Council was founded in Istanbul last year to give a unified voice to the revolution’s many fronts, as its counterpart in the Libyan revolution was able to do. Instead, much the opposite has ensued, and the SNC has gained a reputation for infighting and indecision. “The SNC is just not living up to what we thought it was going to,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, summing up international consensus on the group.

On her visit to town, Clinton hammered this message home, ignoring the people who were supposed to be running the show, and choosing to meet with ground-level activists in their place. America, the message seemed to be, is moving on.

“They are sidestepping the SNC,” fumed Mohammed Sarmini, an SNC spokesman. “I think these meetings [with the activists] were for the council, to say that you are not supported by the Americans anymore.”

Said an SNC member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been one of the council’s primary backers: “They met children. It’s crazy!”

The idea that America is changing gears on the Syrian revolution, in fact, mirrors what Clinton told the activists herself, according to three of the six who were present at one small meeting Saturday. Clinton said there had been too much focus on the SNC in the West and not enough on the activists on the ground, remembers Jawad al-Khateeb, cofounder of the Union of Free Syrian Students. “They wanted to support the real youth revolution in Syria and not just the traditional opposition,” he says.

Like the others at the meeting, Khateeb is a seasoned activist, if not a big name, with a long history of opposition to the Syrian regime and several jail stints in his past. He has been based in Istanbul for the past six months, after he was forced to flee Damascus, but he remains in close coordination with a network of activists at universities across the country. Each of the other activists at the meeting also retained strong ties to the situation inside. One, who asked not to be named for safety concerns—(“I don’t care about the U.S. mukhabarat,” or secret police, this activist said of the request for discretion about the meeting)—made the dangerous trip to Istanbul from Damascus specifically for the Clinton talk.

Another, Ghassan Yasin, had returned recently from Aleppo, where he spent time on the front lines of the battle for Syria’s second city that has come to dominate the uprising of late. When he walked into an Istanbul restaurant Monday evening, he was instantly photographed by a friend. “He met Clinton,” the friend said. “He’s famous now.”

Some observers saw the meetings as part of a new U.S. push to get better connected to the fast-changing events inside Syria as the armed rebellion against Assad seems to pick up steam—and to get a better idea of who the post-Assad players might be in a situation where outside opposition groups such as the SNC may end up having little sway. “They want to know what’s going on on the ground, basically,” says Salwa Ismail, a Middle East specialist with the School of Oriental and African Studies. “At this point, it’s very difficult to see that there’s going to be a single group leading a transition, or even a coalition. It looks like there’s a lot of division and infighting.”

Or as one independent activist in Istanbul put it recently, “Now, we have one enemy in Syria. After the regime falls we will all be enemies."

This growing sense of disarray has increased exasperation with the SNC, and there have been a number of new efforts to forge a replacement. At the meeting in Istanbul, Clinton said Russia often cast blame on Syria’s factious opposition for failed diplomatic efforts to stem the conflict, according to the activists who were there. (“I said to Secretary Clinton, ‘I don’t want to be impolite, but I think you and the Russians make excuses,’ says Khateeb.)

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The State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

“There is a sense that the SNC has been losing its credibility,” says one person close to the international efforts at establishing a transition plan. “I think this is a bit late in the game, but America is really trying to do its homework, and trying to keep up on who’s doing what on the inside and who has influence.”

There is a disconnect, though, between the idea that the U.S. is moving to reconnect with people on the ground and its official policy of not speaking with the armed groups that are increasingly running the show, notes Tabler, of the Washington Institute. The civil-activist side to the revolution was overtaken by armed resistance long ago. “It’s a sad fact that the ones who are taking the shots against Assad are the ones who are going to be calling the shots in the post-Assad era,” Tabler says.

And one NGO worker with deep ties to Syrian activists says that if the U.S. has a handle on anyone in the conflict, it should be the democracy activists—it has been reported at length how programs funded in part by Washington have been training some Syrian activists since before the revolution began. “We’ve trained a lot of these people, and we know them,” this person says.

The sense among the activists at the meeting was that, while the audience with Clinton was appreciated, they'd made their case to foreign diplomats before, which had brought only moral support. Some also felt they were being used to send a message to the bigger forces at work—to pressure the SNC to get its house in order and to let the international community know that America was hard at work.

“Why did they call us here? For the media, maybe? Because they have elections coming up in America, and they want to show people that we are doing something with Syria?” the Damascus activist says. “She can send messages another way.”