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Analysis: US loses patience with Syria opposition group


A look back at the violence that has overtaken the country

News analysis

BEIRUT -- The Obama administration’s suggestion this week that it was prepared to sideline the opposition-in-exile Syrian National Council and attempt to handpick more representative leaders at a crucial meeting next week came after months of frustration over the group's dysfunction and ineffectiveness.

Made up of Syrian intellectuals and political exiles, the Istanbul-based SNC has barely been able to coordinate the simplest of tasks, let alone run the opposition against a well-entrenched regime such as Bashar Assad’s.

It has clearly exhausted the patience of the United States.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary 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.

"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 during a visit to Croatia.

"There has to be a representation of those who are in the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," she said.

Anti-regime activists say at least 36,000 people have been killed since the struggle to oust Assad began 19 months ago.

U.S. officials have watched with concern the SNC’s inability to rally around a common cause.

Syrian opposition wary of US push to coalesce leadership

The members appear incapable of electing a leader that the whole council could agree on. More often than not, they opt for bland technocrats to fill the void.

Lacking a strong leader, the SNC has been ineffectual at inspiring the opposition.

A leaderless revolution
Most importantly, the members of the council have no relevance to the people who are fighting and dying on the Syrian battlefields.

Some of the rebel fighters are former Syrian Army conscripts who defected to the rebels rather than be forced to kill their own. But most are novices to combat.

Former farmers or businessmen, many of these rebels have only the most rudimentary training and are poorly equipped. When asked questions about the SNC, their responses tend to be lukewarm, at best.

These are not rebels caught in the zeal of fighting behind a charismatic leader.

As fighting rages in Syria with heavy air raids, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S.  would push for a major revamp in Syria's opposition leadership. NBC's Keith Miller reports.

Instead, their unity stems from a hatred of the regime in Damascus -- but little else. The SNC enjoys little influence among them.

There is no genuine leader to rally around. This is a leaderless revolution.

Faiz Amru, a Syrian army general who defected earlier this year, told The Associated Press that any transitional government or body created abroad cannot possibly represent those dying in Syria.

"Everyone is trying to push their own agendas," he said by phone from the Turkish-Syrian border. "The big powers have hijacked the Syrian revolution."

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The West fears that an opposition leadership vacuum would allow the anti-Assad rebellion to tilt toward Islamic radicalism, rather than toward the inclusive, secular and democratic values the SNC claims to uphold.

Anybody traveling through rebel-held areas in northern Syria can easily spot the foreign fighters, driving around under the Islamist black flag.

These men are not Syrian. Some are Libyans, others Chechen. They are all radical in their religious and political beliefs.

So it is unsurprising that the United States has decided to seek an amicable divorce from the SNC. The events of the past year have proved just how fickle a partner they were.

Lessons from Iraq war
The United States also may be applying lessons learned from the Iraq War.

The Bush administration was burned when it put its weight behind Iraqi exiles, such as Ahmed Chalabi, who had little relevance in the eyes of the local population.

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People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

So far, nothing suggests that Syria will be any different.

Attempts have been made in the past to rectify the disunity and make the SNC more relevant.

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But when members of the opposition met in Cairo last June, the results were nothing short of catastrophic. Screaming matches ensued. Nothing of value was decided.

It would have been comic, had the reality in Syria itself not been so tragic.

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.

US: 'We're not giving them a list’
The State Department has spent the past few months determining which members are worth backing in Doha, but insists it would not issue 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."

Syria warplanes pound rebel strongholds

Muhydin Lazikani, a London-based writer and SNC member, told the AP that Clinton had no right to criticize the SNC at a time when the Obama administration has no clear path for Syria.

"All they try to do is blame the SNC," said Lazikani.

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Mohammad Sarmini, a Turkey-based SNC spokesman, told the AP that the United States, through this new push, is "trying to make up for its shortcomings and impotence to stop the killings and massacres in Syria."

The Obama administration has said it is not providing arms to internal opponents of Assad and is limiting its aid to non-lethal humanitarian assistance.

Progress or paralysis?
Western officials hope that the meetings in Doha, held over five days, would be everything that the Cairo ones were not.

Participants and observers hope the gathering will prove effective in choosing a unified council that is made up of all of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups.

It remains to be seen whether the opposition is able to elect a representative who can serve as the face of the rebellion against the Assad regime. The SNC will be allocated seats on the new council, although they are expected to remain in the minority.

But if the Doha meetings fail, the only certainty will be that Syria’s nightmarish civil war will drag on and the tragic events played out every day throughout the country will continue unabated.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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