As Americans focused on the presidential election last week, Syrians were dying under the brutal regime of President Bashar Assad. But there were hopeful signs that the Obama administration is poised to play a stronger role in pushing for a post-Assad era. The administration took an important step by reaching out directly to fighters on the front lines — sidestepping the Syrian National Council, a fractured group comprised mostly of exiles and academics based in Turkey. The move signaled that any credible alternative to Assad must include representation from those who are making the greatest sacrifices now, including members of Syrian minority groups who are dying in large numbers to bring down the regime.
For months, US diplomats held out hope that the Syrian National Council would unify the opposition, including the uncoordinated rebel groups that hold pockets of territory in Syria. But Syrian rebels, who are doing all the fighting, widely view the council as irrelevant.
Recently, US officials took the extraordinary step of smuggling opposition leaders from inside Syria to the United Nations headquarters in New York, where they were able to make their own case for intervention. The move was aimed at bolstering a new, more credible Syrian opposition. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the alternative to Assad cannot be “people who have many good attributes, but have, in many instances, not been inside Syria for 20, 30, or 40 years.”
Her determination also has an important strategic significance. In the buildup to the war in Iraq, the United States promoted Iraqi exiles who knew little about the nation they had abandoned decades before. The consquences were disastrous. US support for the Syrian National Council risked the same outcome. The group lacks the capacity to guide the resistance, a disconcerting development given the rise of Islamist extremists in opposition forces. There was almost no chance that the council would have survived a transition after Assad.
Last week, the Arab League met in Doha to try to find a replacement. They invited a range of figures, including some from the Alawite minority that runs Syria now, along with Christians and Kurds. A 40-member general secretariat has been formed, and additional positions will be filled by women to ensure broad representation. As in Egypt, the new opposition includes a majority of Islamist organizations. This is only to be expected. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has existed for decades, tends to be the most organized.
Meanwhile, the old guard on the Syrian National Council is not happy. But the United States shouldn’t be hamstrung by the hurt feelings of a group whose influence in Syria appears to be waning. It’s noteworthy that Russia — a country that, with China, has opposed taking UN action to end Assad’s rule — is now defending the exiles. That could be the strongest proof yet that the council was incapable of unseating Assad.
It is not too premature to demand a more credible and inclusive opposition. The debate over what kind of military support to give the Syrian opposition continues here in the United States, where many are wary of providing heavy weaponry that might fall into the wrong hands. Britain is now pushing the European Union to reconsider intervention, including a no-fly zone. But even in the absence of direct military intervention, much can be done to bolster the opposition. France, for instance, has been delivering cash and medical supplies to rebel-held territory. The United States should continue to look for creative ways to engage with those inside Syria who are risking their lives to change their government.