Obama’s Syria policy in shambles as Assad opposition squabbles

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 25, 2013 

Mideast Syria

In this image taken from video, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a building burns due to government forces shelling in Damascus countryside, Syria


— The Obama administration’s Syria policy was unraveling Monday after weekend developments left the Syrian Opposition Coalition and its military command in turmoil, with the status of its leader uncertain and its newly selected prime minister rejected by the group’s military wing.

State Department officials said they still planned to work with the coalition, to which the United States has pledged $60 million, but analysts said the developments were one more sign that the Obama administration and its European allies had no workable Syria policy.

The opposition coalition, already in its second incarnation, has proved to be as beset by factionalism as its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, exacerbated this time by the meddling of foreign donors, analysts said. But, the analysts added, the United States has no other entity to back in a war that pits the regime of President Bashar Assad against a jihadist-dominated rebel movement.

“This is it. The U.S. can’t reboot it a third time. If they can’t make this work, they’ve got nothing,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the blog Syria Comment.

Syrian Opposition Coalition leader Mouaz al Khatib announced his resignation Sunday, citing his frustration with unspecified foreign powers, which he accused of trading funding for control of the group. The coalition said it had refused the resignation, and Khatib later announced on his Facebook page that he’d lead a delegation representing Syria this week at the Arab League summit in Qatar, leaving his precise status uncertain.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said it was unclear whether Khatib had resigned and that events were still “playing out.”

“What’s important is that the Syrian opposition continues to work toward what they’ve laid out, which is a vision for a tolerant, inclusive Syria,” Ventrell said. “There may be different leadership that will come and go, there may be different folks who play different roles, but we are going to continue to focus on that important vision.”

The confusion over Khatib’s resignation was compounded by word over the weekend that the head of the Supreme Military Command, the semi-affiliated military wing of the coalition, refused to recognize newly chosen Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto, saying the premier had been improperly elected and pushed through by Qatar, one of the biggest backers of the opposition movement and its armed rebels.

Hitto, a longtime Texas resident who recently returned to the region to join the opposition, heads what was envisioned as an interim government that’s poised to take over once Assad falls. But his credibility is deeply in doubt now that Khatib appears to have resigned and Hitto’s military commanders reject his leadership. The rejection also casts a pall over American efforts to pass through the coalition millions in U.S. money destined for Syrians whom the fighting has forced from their homes; Hitto was in charge of the coalition’s nascent aid organization.

Opposition activists who were privy to details of the negotiations say Hitto’s nomination was backed by Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist organization that’s fought the Assad regime for three decades and is at the forefront of the political opposition.

Qatar, a Muslim Brotherhood patron, supported Hitto over the objections of rival Persian Gulf nation Saudi Arabia. In retaliation, opposition activists say, Saudi Arabia, which is a key supplier of weapons to the rebels, pressured the Supreme Military Command’s leader, defected Gen. Salim Idriss, to reject Hitto, essentially putting negotiations back at square one.

“With a clear absence of the U.S., small players like the Qataris and Saudis will take over,” said a prominent Syrian opposition activist who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities of the topic. “It’s bringing the government down, when the goal was to put an end to the chaos and vacuum.”

The setbacks over the weekend only underlined the lack of progress the Syrian political opposition has made after two years and millions of dollars in outside aid.

The lack of opposition cohesion raises the specter of a bloody free-for-all should Assad fall, perhaps plunging Syria into anarchy with no credible body poised to take charge.

“We have a leader who resigned, an interim prime minister whose election was conducted without transparency and the formal opposition has failed. I don’t know what happens if Assad falls,” said Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists with more than 80 branches throughout Syria.

Jouejati, who’s consulted with the State Department on Syria policy, said key developments to watch were whether the coalition-linked rebel command would live up to its promise of accepting civilian leadership and whether cooperation could improve amid both sides complaining of being sidelined.

“The Syrian opposition needs to look at itself in the mirror and realize it’s been a colossal failure to the Syrian people,” Jouejati lamented. “It’s time for a complete overhaul.”

Landis predicted that the United States will try to restore some type of role for Khatib, who’d fallen out with the Muslim Brotherhood by calling for conditional talks with Assad, a track that the U.S. and Europe are quietly pursuing in hopes of preventing a total collapse of Syrian institutions but that Brotherhood activists reject after decades of heavy losses to the Assad dynasty. It’s in the U.S. government’s interest that the coalition doesn’t totally collapse, especially as a rebel group that the U.S. government has labeled an al Qaida-linked terrorist group, Jabhat al Nusra, gains ground throughout the country.

“It’s going to limp along because they need it,” Landis said. “They need a political organization that’s pro-West.”

Email: hallam@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @HannahAllam

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