Can Foreign Intervention Forge a New Syrian Leadership?

The U.S. wants to reshape Syria's opposition. But there is no guarantee the plan will work

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Javier Manzano / AFP / Getty Images

A Syrian rebel fighter looks at smoke billowing from a bus that caught on fire after a regime sniper allegedly shot at it in the northern city of Aleppo on Oct. 28, 2012

The plan would reportedly create a new political leadership structure for the Syrian opposition, which would fold-in but supersede the largely exile-based Syrian National Council on which Western hopes had previously rested, despite it failing to overcome paralytic political infighting and marginal traction on the ground. The new structure would give far greater weight to the local revolutionary councils throughout Syria, while providing nonlethal support to enable rebel governance of a de facto liberated zone along the Turkish border. Protecting such a zone with purely nonlethal aid might be far-fetched, however, since the regime has used its air power to terrorize civilians in rebel-held areas and prevent the establishment of normality under opposition control.

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It’s not clear to what extent the idea of a new rebel leadership established under U.S. tutelage would take hold, given the multiple constituencies that would challenge the idea, ranging from jihadist fighting groups to at least some of the unarmed secular opposition groups on the ground in Syria. And to the extent that it displaces the Syrian National Council, that group — which has been dominated by the exiled Syrian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and continues to enjoy support from Turkey and Qatar — is also likely to push back. “There needs to be an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said while traveling in the Balkans. “And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution.”

She also stressed that creating a more representative leadership required bringing in more of those “in the front lines fighting and dying,” i.e., not relying on longtime exiles in the Syrian National Council. The challenge is made more complex by the fact that it’s precisely because they’re in the front lines fighting and dying — and also killing — that the extremists to which Clinton refers have grown so influential in a rebellion whose center of gravity has shifted from its roots among protest organizers to autonomous insurgent commanders. The ongoing rebel effort to seize the second city, Aleppo, is instructive: constant reports from the besieged city suggest the rebel military offensive lacks the support even of the city’s anti-Assad opposition political forces. This week’s clashes in the city between Free Syrian Army insurgents and Kurdish militia fighting for their own autonomy from Arab Syria, mistrustful of both the regime and the rebels, highlight the growing challenge in simply holding Syria together.

(MORE: U.S. Seeks a New Opposition in Syria)

Secretary Clinton’s concerns about minority groups is well founded because the regime’s ability to fight on is based in no small part on the belief among its core-constituency Alawites, as well as among Christians and Kurds, that the rebellion threatens their well-being. But after almost two years of increasingly sectarian civil war, the communal schisms may be too deeply rooted to be remedied simply by adding a few minority representatives to an opposition leadership council.

And, of course, the rebel military forces haven’t been invited to the Qatar meeting. Still, all of the anti-Assad forces in the field know they can’t get anywhere without one another’s cooperation, and that together with the recognition that the battle to get rid of Assad could continue well beyond the two-year mark it’ll reach next February, creates a basis for consensus on the need for new opposition political structures. But whether the leadership that emerges in Syria’s rebellion accords with U.S. preferences remains to be seen.

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