We have long been struck by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promiscuous resort to the verb “must” in pronouncing upon the presumably independent decisions of other international actors. But Secretary Clinton was at her moralizingly didactic worst last week in announcing the Obama administration’s latest plans to remake the Syrian opposition, see here. Those plans amount to jettisoning the Syrian National Council (SNC)—which, at least on the surface, might seem to be the beginning of wisdom—and supporting a Qatari-sponsored plan to create something called the Syrian National Initiative. As we will see, this is hardly a genuine policy rethink.
Shortly after Clinton delivered her remarks on the Syrian opposition, Flynt addressed the motives for this latest flourish in America’s misguided policy toward the Syrian conflict on Al Jazeera’s Inside Syria, click on the video above or the link here: “I think that the State Department is motivated by two concerns. One is that, to put it bluntly, the established policy is failing. It’s been twenty months since unrest started in Syria in March 2011. It’s been fifteen months since President Obama first declared, with seemingly no sense of follow through, that President Assad must go. Well, obviously, President Assad is still there, and this ‘opposition’ which is supposed to effect his departure has not become more unified or more effective in the intervening months. In fact, the opposite has happened; it has become more divided, less effective on the ground.”
And so the established policy, which was “[n]ever very well thought through,” is “clearly failing.” As Flynt observes, “the United States can live with failing policies for a long time in the Middle East.” But this brings him to the second—and, in some ways, more immediate—concern driving the Obama administration’s current flailing over Syria. Flynt calls this, “for shorthand, the ‘Benghazi effect’.” Amidst the controversy in Washington over the chronology and extent of the CIA and U.S. military response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, there is a critical point which pundits, for the most part, have not raised, but of which the Obama administration is very mindful: “that the U.S. ambassador to Libya may have been killed by a group which was armed, supported by the United States or its allies…[Administration officials] know that jihadi groups are playing an increasingly important role on the ground in the Syrian opposition” and Washington wants to get in front of this problem.
But the new impetus to remake “the Syrian opposition” is as fatally flawed as the initiative that gave rise to the SNC in the first place. Regarding Secretary Clinton’s directives, Flynt notes,
“There is no particular reason [the SNC] should accept dictation from Hillary Clinton, but frankly I don’t think that the United States has a coherent policy for dealing with the Syrian opposition; they don’t have a coherent Syria policy…The whole effort to create a unified opposition is doomed to fail…If you just look at the groups that are represented in the SNC, if you look at the groups that are not represented in the SNC, if you look at the groups that are likely to be represented in this new body that will come out of the Doha meetings—these groups have fundamentally irreconcilable interests, objectives, visions for Syria. If Assad and his government were magically to disappear today, the end result would not be some unified political structure in Syria. It would be that many of these groups in the so-called ‘opposition’ would be fighting one another. You cannot create a single unified opposition.”
As one of the other panelists, Rim Turkmani, amplifies the point, it was clear from the beginning of the Syrian conflict that “any [opposition] coalition is going to fail…The SNC is a coalition of coalitions; and now they are looking at forming something bigger—that is a coalition of the coalitions of the coalitions.” As for the Obama administration’s latest effort to reshape the Syrian opposition, she holds, “The new equation that the United States is trying to reach is impossible. They are trying to find a body that represents the whole opposition; at the same time, they are looking for puppets…they are looking for a new government that will never escape the control of the U.S., and that is impossible.” (Ms. Turkmani is also quite scathing in denouncing the cravenness of the SNC, other opposition groups, and politically ambitious exiles in currying favor with their foreign supporters.)
Flynt contends that the effort to revitalize the Syrian opposition is doomed to fail not only because of the “opposition’s” many lines of division, but also because “the Assad government still retains a very significant base of support within Syria—probably about half of the society.” Thus, “the only way you’re really going to get out of this conflict is through a negotiated settlement based on power sharing between the current government and parts of the opposition. But the opposition, egged on by its external supporters, refuses to pursue the only way that you could get out of this conflict.” When the SNC representative on the panel says that the opposition is prepared for dialogue with others about a political transition, just not with the Syrian government, and that a political transition can only start after Assad departs, Flynt underscores, “You can’t ask for a political process with preconditions, much less pre-results.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett