U.S. diplomat meets with Syrian opposition leaders Clinton blasted

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 7, 2012 

— A top U.S. diplomat met into the wee hours Wednesday with leaders of the Syrian National Council to discuss future coordination with them, just a week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had chastised them as being out of touch with the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad and said the United State no longer would recognize the council as a key player in the rebellion.

One of the Syrian National Council members who attend the meeting said U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had told the council’s executive committee that Clinton’s rebuke was intended to “shock” them into changing their ways.

Ford, however, left no doubt that the shock wave was intended to move in one direction only, and there’d be no change in the U.S. policy of refusing to arm or train the resistance.

“We did not speak about weapons,” said Abdul Ahad Astephoa of the Assyrian Democratic Organization.

“We said the international community should protect the Syrian people. They promised they would think this over and get back to us,” he told McClatchy. “We said that we need acts, not words.”

Another Syrian National Council official at the talks said Ford had emphasized that Washington is seeking a “political solution” to the 20-month-long national uprising. Samir Nashar, a businessman from Aleppo, said Ford didn’t define precisely what he meant, however, beyond referring to diplomatic efforts by Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who’s the U.N. special envoy for Syria.

Clinton’s Oct. 31 statement, which said the United States “had recommended names and organizations that we believe should be included in any leadership structure,” appears not to be having the intended effect. Earlier Tuesday evening, the Syrian National Council effectively rejected a plan for a new body that U.S. officials had said they were prepared to endorse.

The talks with Ford took place halfway through a meeting in Doha, Qatar, that the Syrian National Council said had been called to restructure the movement. On Tuesday, the council expanded its membership by one-third to more than 400, and on Wednesday members elected a new executive committee, which was to choose a new president.

The zigzags of the Obama administration’s Syria policy have angered Syrian opposition leaders, who say Washington regularly lectures them but is watching passively as the Assad regime bombs cities and destroys the country. Some U.S. allies also are upset, saying the U.S. gave them no warning that it was going to de-recognize the Syrian National Council.

Ford’s talks with the council’s leadership, which took place at his hotel, added to the confusion, with some saying the meeting suggested that Clinton’s de-recognition was no longer U.S. policy.

The discussions, while said to be friendly, apparently were tense at times. “They had their ideas, we had ours,” said Abdulbaset Sieda, the outgoing council president. “He is not in any position to accept or deny the SNC,” he said of Ford.The two days of council meetings here have added little clarity to whether the group can revamp itself and become a transitional government or will continue to be paralyzed by internal rivalries and divisions.

There are several plans on the table written by rival groups, including the one the United State favors, which would name a council of 50 or 60 to handle aid from foreign countries, and another that calls for creating a national assembly of 300 people, half of whom would come from inside Syria. The Syrian National Council itself also may have a plan of its own.

On Thursday, the council is scheduled to meet with groups that aren’t currently members in hopes of forging new alliances.

The council’s Sieda underscored the difficulties by saying the group would settle for only 40 percent of the seats on a new transitional council, even though “in reality, we are 70 percent of the opposition.” Rebels in Syria have said repeatedly that they don’t accept the Syrian National Council’s leadership.

Council leaders bristle at what they say has been useless advice from the Americans on how to win international support while offering little in the way of financial assistance. In a report issued Sunday, the outgoing council leadership said it had received only $40.4 million since it formed more than a year ago, and that 90 percent of the money had gone to relief. Half the money came from the government of Libya.

Among the recommendations the council leadership said they’d received from U.S. officials was weekly lobbying trips to Moscow to push for assistance from Russia, a major backer of the Assad regime.

Yet when the council suggested weekly meetings with the United States, there was no American response. “They did the usual, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ ” Astephoa said.

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @RoyGutmanMcC

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