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.
Members of Syria's opposition-in-exile bristled Thursday at the Obama administration's suggestion that Washington will handpick more representative leaders at a crucial conference in Qatar next week.
The new U.S. 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 President Bashar Assad.
"This direct tutelage and these dictates are not acceptable to the Syrian people anymore," Zuhair Salem, the London-based spokesman for Syria's banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, told The Associated Press. The Brotherhood is part of the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which is dominated by exiles.
Syrians and the U.S. administration have grown increasingly frustrated as the opposition proved unwilling or unable to coalesce. The U.S. and its allies have long bemoaned the lack of a cohesive leadership, and there is little doubt that this has held back more robust foreign aid and involvement to bolster the opposition in its fight.
With the battle for control of Syria almost certainly to be decided on the battlefield, the political opposition led by exiles is being further sidelined.
Syria warplanes pound rebel strongholds
On Wednesday, the Obama administration said it would push for a major shakeup in the opposition leadership so that it better represents the fighters risking their lives on the frontlines. At least 36,000 people have been killed since the uprising began 19 months ago, according to anti-regime activists.
It was a signal that Syria's political opposition is increasingly irrelevant, as it's become clearer that the conflict will be decided by fighters.
In the latest violence, anti-government rebels killed 28 soldiers on Thursday in attacks on three army checkpoints around Saraqeb, a town on Syria's main north-south highway, a monitoring group said.
Some of the dead were shot after they had surrendered, according to video footage. Rebels berated them, calling them "Assad's Dogs," before firing round after round into their bodies as they lay on the ground.
The highway linking the capital Damascus to the contested city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial center, has been the scene of heavy fighting since rebels cut the road last month. Saraqeb lies just south of Aleppo.
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham 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.
The U.S. said a revamped leadership could rally wider international support and help buffer against attempts by extremists among the rebels to hijack the uprising.
Syrian opposition figures have called on the U.S. and other Western supporters to provide the rebels with strategic weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles, to counter the Assad regime's military superiority and help the rebels break the battlefield stalemate. However, the U.S. has been cool to the idea. It fears that such weapons could fall into the hands of radical Islamists fighting on the rebel side who might one day use them against the U.S. and its allies.
The SNC is widely seen as ineffective and cut off from those fighting on the ground. It has been plagued by infighting and defections. Still Clinton's portrayal of the SNC leadership as out-of-touch exiles kicked up a storm of disapproval inside and outside Syria.
Salem said Clinton's remarks show the U.S. wishes to "tailor the Syrian opposition to specific demands."
The U.S is pushing for a greater role for the rebel Free Syrian Army, 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.
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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 U.S. administration responded to the criticism by saying it was not issuing dictates.
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"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 U.S. meddling in the region. The opposition has been increasingly frustrated by what it perceives as the lack of a coherent U.S. plan to help the rebels.
Muhydin Lazikani, a London-based writer and SNC member, said Clinton had no business criticizing the SNC at a time when the Obama administration has not charted a 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, said the U.S., through this new push, is "trying to make up for its shortcomings and impotence to stop the killings and massacres in Syria."
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center was also critical of the U.S. approach.
"The U.S. does not seem to have a real end game here," he said. "Where does this lead? What happens after you have a unified opposition? It will still have to be fought out between armed groups."
The shift in the U.S. 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 Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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