Syrians wary of U.S. influence; Obama administration wants leaders capable of working with West
BEIRUT — 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," said Zuhair Salem, the London-based spokesman for Syria's banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition group. 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.
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.
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.
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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