ISTANBUL — A U.S. decision to de-recognize a Syrian exile umbrella group and to propose a new political forum – and even who should be on it – drew an angry response from opposition figures Thursday, who charged that Washington was trying to impose its will on them while passively watching the bombardment of cities and towns by the Assad regime.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the United States would no longer view the Syrian National Council “as the visible leader” of the opposition and said she had “recommended names and organizations which we believe should be included in any leadership structure.”
“The politics of the United States are very, very bad, very stupid,” said Mohammed Sarmini, spokesman for the Syrian National Council, whose 310 members represent most of the major parties and organizations in exile. “This may be an American project, but it is very offensive to the Syrian people. You should support us on the ground, not get into our politics.”
A respected Syrian scholar who heads a Washington think tank was equally critical.
“I think that no country . . . can interfere or can impose the leaders on the Syrian opposition,” said Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, who’s also a Syrian National Council member. “I call on the international community to back and support the Syrian opposition groups so they can organize themselves, not to interfere in the different groups.”
The U.S. move came on the eve of a conference in Doha, Qatar, where the Syrian National Council, known as the SNC, plans to elect a new board and restructure itself, then later meet with other groups not under its umbrella and forge a common strategy. The meetings coincide with the U.S. presidential election.
Clinton said she had consulted European allies and members of the Arab League before reaching the decision, but there were signs that the Obama administration may be out of touch with Syrian exile politics.
Just as Clinton was speaking in Zagreb, Croatia, to reporters accompanying her on a two-day swing through the Balkans, Ziadeh was wrapping up a three-day conference in an Istanbul suburb where all the Syrian opposition parties reached accord on a plan leading to a transitional government.
In her remarks, Clinton disparaged the SNC as “people who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years.” She called for representation of those “who are on the frontlines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom.”
In fact, dozens of military and civilian personnel from inside Syria took part in Ziadeh’s conference, including representatives of “every military command, without exception,” he said. They included Abdel Rizaq Tlass, the founder of the powerful Farouk Brigade in Homs, Lt. Ammar al-Wawi, leader of the Ababil Battalion in Aleppo, and Col. Afif Suleiman, head of the revolutionary council in Idlib.
The three-day conference was said to be the biggest and most inclusive gathering of its kind. There were more than 20 officers and fighters from the armed resistance in attendance, some 70 civilian activists from inside Syria, and representatives of 18 political parties and factions.
They reached accord in four major areas, the most important of which is probably the plan for a transitional government. The accord calls for an assembly of 300 Syrians, to be held inside the country if possible, to elect the government. Most of the participants would be from the inside, intended to give the legitimacy that many transitional governments do not have.
One-quarter of the participants would represent the municipal councils set up to run liberated areas, one-quarter from the armed resistance groups, one-quarter of state bureaucrats who have defected to the opposition and one-quarter from the Syrian National Council.
Other points agreed to at the meeting were to build a new constitution, based on the 1950 constitution, which put heavy stress on civil rights; to institute an election law that provides for multiple parties and a parliamentary system; to institute a new national security administration and to make it a constitutional requirement that the military stays out of politics.
Based on the conclusions reached by Ziadeh’s group, which were to be ratified by the SNC and the other groups next week, there is now a question whether the action announced by Clinton will unite the opposition – against U.S. pressure – or carve a new fissure.
For months, as the bloodshed continued in Syria, American officials have been elusive and avoided media inquiries.
Haynes Mahoney, the former deputy chief of mission in Damascus, who closely follows Syrian refugee affairs from Istanbul, attended part of the first day of the Ziadeh conference but was otherwise absent. Mahoney told a McClatchy reporter Monday that he is under orders not to talk with the news media, except off the record and then only with express permission from the State Department. McClatchy requested a talk with Mahoney in early October but was turned down three weeks later.
Similarly, Robert Ford, the former ambassador to Syria and now the main point man in Washington, has declined to give interviews to a McClatchy reporter for several months.
But it appears that the U.S. officials also don’t have a lot of contact with respected opposition figures. Ziadeh said he was not sure whether the United States had actually drafted the plan for the opposition or had bought into a new plan drafted by Riad Seif, a prominent dissident who left Syria earlier this summer after a decade of house arrest and jail.
Seif’s plan is to create a council of 51, which might turn into a transitional government, Ziadeh said.
The humanitarian situation in Syria is now one of if not the worst crisis on Earth. Officially the death toll is stated at 30,000 to 35,000. But a European diplomat in Istanbul who closely monitors the war and humanitarian aid efforts estimates the actual death toll at more than 100,000, a number with which reputable Syrian opposition figures agree. U.S. officials say they wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers are higher than 30,000.
The 100,000 figure is based on an estimate of the number of people who have been forcibly “disappeared” and on the existence of what the European diplomat said were believed to be mass graves.
Reputable opposition groups say the Syrian government has arrested 92,000 people on political charges.
The U.N. High Commission for Refugees on Thursday estimated that 360,000 Syrians had fled abroad and sought to register as refugees, but the real number is more than double that, more than 700,000.
No international organization seems to have a handle on the internally displaced, that is, civilians either living in the open or forced to live in the dwellings of friends or relatives. The official U.N. estimate is 1.2 million, but a respected Syrian diplomat, who defected to the opposition, says it could be as high as 10 million.