Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is backing a search for new Syrian opposition leaders in an effort to draw wider support and better represent those sacrificing their lives to remove President Bashar al- Assad from power.
Clinton said yesterday that the Syrian National Council, the largely expatriate Syrian opposition umbrella group, shouldn’t continue to be seen as heading the movement.
“This cannot be an opposition represented by those who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years,” Clinton said at a press conference in Zagreb, Croatia. “There has to be representation of those on the front lines fighting and dying today to attain their freedom.”
Clinton’s remarks reflect U.S. frustration with the SNC, which has been consumed by infighting and, in the view of U.S. officials, has failed to convey to different Syrian minority groups, particularly Christians and the Alawites of Assad’s clan, that they would be protected in a post-Assad future.
“We’ve made it clear the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition,” Clinton said. “They can be part of a larger opposition, but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard.”
The opposition also will have to “be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution,” Clinton said, in an apparent reference to Islamic radicals who’ve joined the fight against Assad from Iraq and elsewhere.
The top U.S. diplomat made her comments as a variety of Syrian opposition groups prepare to meet next week in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. Clinton said the U.S. had recommended to the Qatari hosts people and groups that should attend, including opposition figures from within Syria.
Clinton warned about “disturbing reports of extremists going into Syria and attempting to take over what has been a legitimate revolution against an oppressive regime for their own purposes.”
The U.S. and other countries involved in supporting Syrian opposition efforts have cited the need to reach out to Syria’s minority groups in order to peel away Assad’s support.
“It’s not a secret that many inside Syria worry about what’s next,” Clinton said. “They have no love lost about the Assad regime, but they worry, rightly so, about the future. So there needs to be an opposition that speaks to every segment and geographic part of Syria.”
Clinton said she “unfortunately” was not surprised that a cease-fire proposed by UN Special EnvoyLakhdar Brahimi failed.
“The Assad regime did not suspend its use of advanced weaponry against the Syrian people for even one day,” Clinton said. “So while we urge Special Envoy Brahimi to do whatever he can in Moscow and Beijing to convince them to change course and support stronger UN action, we cannot and will not wait for that.”
During an Oct. 29 visit to Moscow, Brahimi said the UN is making contingency plans to send peacekeepers to Syria after more than 400 people were killed during the promised cease-fire. Speaking in Moscow after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Brahimi said the failure of the UN-brokered truce that was meant to start Oct. 26 “will not discourage us” even as the Syrian conflict evolves into a civil war.
Contingency planning is needed because a new peacekeeping force “may indeed become a possibility in the future,” Brahimi said. Lavrov said Russia would back an effort to send peacekeepers to Syria if a cease-fire takes hold in the country.
More than 35,000 people have been killed since the conflict began, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while more than 388,000 Syrians have fled their homeland, the UN says.
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