The State Department's search for a credible, moderate Syrian opposition partner - whether political or military - resembles a game of musical chairs. At least four times, the U.S. government has thrown its support behind a leader only to see him quit or end up ousted, a casualty of the opposition's notorious infighting.
The game picked up again this week after the dismissal late Sunday of Gen. Salim Idriss, the moderate rebel commander whose Supreme Military Council (SMC) collapsed in December after rival Islamist forces seized its warehouses. It was an ignominious end for a man the State Department had touted as "a key component of the future of the Syrian opposition."The removal of Idriss sends the State Department back to the drawing board in the search for a partner in the nearly 3-year-old conflict, which began as a popular uprising against the authoritarian regime of Bashar Assad. The absence of a reliable Syrian partner hinders aid delivery and blocks progress toward a negotiated resolution of the conflict.
American diplomats are making overtures to the newly powerful Islamic Front - which includes jihadist factions that sometimes coordinate with al Qaida's Nusra Front - but the group doesn't seem interested in forging ties with Washington.
Other U.S. options include making inroads with the Syrian Revolutionary Front, which is associated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and was part of the Supreme Military Council, or reaching out to freestanding militias comprised of moderate rebels. Still another option is helping to reconstitute the mostly defunct SMC, which just replaced Idriss with Brig. Gen. Abdel-Ilah al-Bashir, who has coveted ties in the contested south.
It's too soon to say who will emerge as the new U.S. client in Syria, and it might be prudent to curb the enthusiasm over the prospects this time. Here's a reminder of the fates of three once-promising, U.S.-backed leaders that ultimately couldn't deliver on pledges to unify rival opposition blocs and administer rebel-held territories:
A Sorbonne-educated sociologist, Ghalioun was the first chairman of the Syrian National Council, an early opposition umbrella group. He assumed the post in August 2011 and resigned in May 2012 amid infighting over his perceived closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ghalioun had met then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on several occasions. The State Department had described him as "somebody that we have worked well with" and praised one of his speeches as "very impassioned."
Moaz al Khatib
In November 2012, Khatib was elected president of the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is also known as the Syrian Opposition Coalition, or SOC. He resigned in March 2013, later saying that he was fed up with regional meddling, an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He was also upset with the refusal of Western powers to help the rebels militarily. The State Department had praised Khatib as "courageous."
A naturalized U.S. citizen who left Texas to join the uprising, Hitto in March 2013 became the first prime minister of an interim government established by the Syrian Opposition Coalition. The State Department praised his decision to leave "a very successful life in Texas to go and work on humanitarian relief for the people of his home country." And, the department added, "we know and respect him very well." Hitto didn't even last four months; he resigned in July 2013 after he was unable to form a government.