Syria’s rebels gaining momentum, but U.S. officials still can’t identify a leader

After striking the government flag, a rebel fighter raises the three-starred revolutionary flag over a captured government position in Al Tal, Syria
After striking the government flag, a rebel fighter raises the three-starred revolutionary flag over a captured government position in Al Tal, Syria MCT

As rebels rack up important victories that could hasten the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials are still struggling to identify a credible opposition authority to keep fragile Syria from civil war once the leader is gone.

The main opposition groups Washington supports lack cohesion, credibility and, most importantly, command over the armed rebels who on Friday said they were sending reinforcements to Damascus for battles that could determine whether the four-decade Assad family dynasty survives.

The U.N. Security Council voted Friday on a 30-day extension of special envoy Kofi Annan’s troubled monitoring mission, although prospects for a last-ditch diplomatic resolution seemed low given the escalating violence on the ground.

The rebel forces’ most significant attack so far – a bombing Wednesday that killed three top defense officials – claimed a fourth high-profile target on Friday, when Syrian state television announced that national security chief Hisham Ikhtiar died of wounds he suffered in the blast.

Joseph Holliday, an analyst of the Syrian insurgency for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said U.S. officials don’t believe “meaningful, political negotiations between the regime and the opposition” would ever occur. That means Assad’s removal almost certainly will come by force, and with no obvious government-in-waiting, there are scant details on what the day after would look like.

Since President Barack Obama called for Assad’s ouster nearly a year ago, the United States and its allies adamantly have resisted military intervention, U.N.-led diplomatic efforts have collapsed and the regime has successfully kept most foreign media from reporting a clear picture of the muddiest of the Arab Spring uprisings.

“Who are we even talking to?” Holliday said, referring to the U.S. government’s risk of pinning hopes on shadowy opposition figures who might be unable to deliver on the ground.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol, said American diplomats were frustrated that the opposition forces still haven’t managed to coordinate better with the rebel fighters or work out the internal differences that have led to a mosaic of competing forces – homegrown vs. exiles, secular vs. Islamist, armed vs. pacifist.

At the same time, the official added, “the U.S. hasn’t wanted to knight someone” because it was important for the process to be seen as an all-Syrian undertaking.

“‘He must go,’ then begs the question, ‘Who comes next?’” the official said. “And if we don’t have an answer to that, it’s hard to go further.”

Syrian academics and technocrats – almost all of them exiles – who were tasked with creating a shadow government don’t appear to have real support on the ground in Syria, in Washington or at the United Nations, according to analysts and published remarks by officials.

In a war game exercise last month, senior analysts in Washington who specializing in the Middle East played out scenarios for getting rid of Assad. In a grim report stemming from the exercise, the most pessimistic words were reserved for the prospects of a transitional administration.

“None of the participants believed that the Syrian opposition would be strong enough to maintain some amount of civil order throughout the country after the fall of Assad, and none of the teams supported strong international intervention to play that role,” participant Nora Bensahel of the Center for a New American Security wrote in a recap published on the Website of Foreign Policy magazine.

“This means that whenever and however Assad falls, civil strife could well escalate into violence and possibly into a continued civil war,” she added.

State Department officials don’t dispute the opposition’s disarray but insist that groups such as the Syrian National Council, a Turkey-based collective of mainly exiles, have made progress over the past six months in identifying common goals and strategies.

State Department officials praised opposition members who met earlier this month in Cairo for hammering out a blueprint of a constitution for a post-Assad Syria – an achievement that came only after two days of tense talks and even a fistfight over Kurdish demands.

Now, the American officials said, they’re also nudging the most prominent opposition forces toward more leadership of the mostly autonomous, leaderless Free Syrian Army, the armed insurgency about which little is known.

“The connections between the opposition and the Free Syrian Army are still tenuous, but they’re getting better,” one State Department official said. “If we can get Assad and his cronies out, that will at least create an atmosphere to have a dialogue. That can’t happen now.”

Then there are efforts to build bridges to the domestic opposition, which includes the Local Coordination Committees and the Supreme Council for the Syrian Revolution, semi-formal local governing bodies that emerged from the protests that began the revolt.

Samer al Hussein, an opposition activist from Hama who’s been in stuck in Damascus since the latest violence, predicted that the local, grassroots councils that sprang from the revolution would form the backbone of an interim authority if the government falls soon.

The Syrian National Council, he added, could be a part of the transition, but he said, “I don’t think the SNC is very qualified to work on the political side.”

“I think there will be chaos, but I think the revolutionary councils are organized and they now know how to work to some extent,” Hussein said by telephone from Damascus, the booms of shelling audible in the background. “We have some authority.”

McClatchy special correspondent David Enders contributed.

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