The Obama administration’s decision to drop its recognition of the Syrian National Council as the leading Syrian opposition group and propose creating a new umbrella organization surprised and puzzled close U.S. allies, diplomats said Friday.
The U.S. government gave no advance notice of its intention to renounce the council as the lead umbrella group, diplomats of three countries said. They said their governments learned about the initiative from news accounts.
Diplomats criticized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for using what they called inappropriate language in describing the council as made up of people who haven’t been in Syria for decades; many of its members, the diplomats said, left the country only after the uprising against President Bashar Assad began 19 months ago.
“We have recommended names and organizations that we believe should be included in any leadership structure,” Clinton said Wednesday in announcing the administration’s break with the council, a move that, unusually, was made public in a statement to reporters who were traveling with her, after a meeting with the president of Croatia. “We’ve made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.”
“We were a bit surprised, especially when they said they’d suggested the names for the new body,” one Western diplomat said. “Syrians will say the Americans are imposing the names. And I am not sure the Americans would propose the right people.”
He called it “a bit too harsh” for Washington “to throw away” the executive committee and the whole 310-member general assembly of the Syrian National Council. “We know they were not representing the entire opposition, but you can’t say they did nothing. They still have a role to play,” he said.
There was no word from Britain on its position, but as America’s closest ally, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron was expected to support the new effort.
Clinton’s intervention is sure to have repercussions for Arab League-sponsored meetings that start Sunday in Qatar, at which the Syrian National Council planned to elect new leadership and reorganize its structure.
“Doha is very confused,” the diplomat said.
A diplomat from a second Western country said that how the talks would reach a conclusion now was “a bit blurry.”
All three diplomats spoke only on the condition that they and their countries not be identified, to avoid harming relations with the United States.
There is now visible disarray among key U.S. allies on how to proceed.
Turkey, the most crucial U.S. ally in the Syria crisis and the only NATO member that shares a border with Syria, held a top-level meeting Friday in Ankara with the Syrian National Council’s leadership. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hosted council President Abdelbaset Sieda and eight members of the council’s executive committee for a two-hour lunch to discuss the meetings in Doha, Qatar.
The council members outlined a number of possible outcomes of the Doha meetings, ranging from a declaration of principles to the formation of a government in exile, although many observers doubt that the meetings could result in the latter outcome.
“We have been talking with everyone on the Syrian opposition, including the Syrian National Council, and permitted them to operate here, provided they don’t violate the public order,” said Selcuk Unal, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
Turkey has made no public statements on the Doha meetings.
Besides opening a fissure between Washington and some of the 100-plus countries in the Friends of the Syrian People, a U.S.-backed forum calling for the downfall of the Assad regime, the change in U.S. policy also opened the U.S. to criticism from Russia, which has been Assad’s most important international backer.
Russia said Clinton’s statement went directly counter to accords reached in Geneva at the end of July that called for a new government to be formed only after negotiations between the present government and the opposition. “We heard direct orders about what the Syrian opposition should do to form a ‘government in exile’ and about who should join such a government,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
China and Russia have vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have authorized possible military intervention to stop the carnage in Syria. Official figures maintained by the Syrian opposition say that at least 35,000 civilians have been killed, but some estimates exceed 100,000.
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.