But in her comments announcing that step – “the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition” – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made no direct reference to Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood.
Instead, she said it was important for a reshaped opposition to include more Syrians who are fighting on the ground – as opposed to those who have been in exile for decades – and who represent all regions of Syria.
Clinton, who was speaking in Zagreb, Croatia, also warned that “extremists” are trying to “hijack the Syrian revolution,” but subsequent words indicated that she was referring not to political Islamists like the Brotherhood but violent and mostly foreign jihadists, some linked to al-Qaeda, who are reportedly joining the struggle.
“There are disturbing reports of extremists going into Syria and attempting to take over what has been a legitimate revolution against a repressive regime for their own purposes,” she said.
Some analysts say the administration has been fully aware of the Brotherhood’s rise in Syria but does not regard the group – whether in Syria, Egypt or anywhere else – as a particular threat.
After Clinton met with seven SNC leaders in Geneva last December, a senior State Department official briefing reporters said “the United States considers the Syrian National Council to be a leading and legitimate representative of Syrians seeking a peaceful, democratic transition.”
At a meeting in Tunisia two months later the “Friends of the Syrian People,” a grouping of dozens of countries including the U.S, recognized the SNC as “a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change.”
In April, during a visit to Istanbul for a follow-up “Friends” meeting, Clinton said she thought the SNC was “not only becoming better focused and better organized, but more broadly based, more inclusive.”
To reinforce that supposedly “more inclusive” character, a senior administration official briefing reporters at the time said Clinton would meet on the sidelines of the meeting with SNC members including two women, an orthodox Christian and a non-Brotherhood “moderate Islamist.”
By the time of that Istanbul meeting, however, several prominent SNC members had already resigned, some citing Brotherhood domination as the reason. For its part the Islamist group denied wanting to control a post-Assad Syria – much as its Egyptian counterpart did before elections in that country.
In Zagreb on Wednesday, Clinton revealed plans by the U.S. and others to build a broader opposition body, with meetings to be held in Doha, Qatar next week “an important next step.”
“We have recommended names and organizations that we believe should be included in any leadership structure,” she said.
“We’ve made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. 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.”
‘Mobilizing the moderate forces’
In a presidential campaign debate last Monday, Republican candidate Mitt Romney questioned President Obama’s leadership on Syria, and called for the creation of “a form of council” opposing President Bashar Assad.
“The right course for us is working through our partners and with our own resources to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a – in a form of – if not government, a form of – of council that can take the lead in Syria,” he said.
That opposition council should also be armed, Romney continued, but in a way that ensures they do not have weapons that could get into “the wrong hands” and “be used to hurt us down the road.”
“We want to make sure that we have the relationships of friendship with the people that take his [Assad’s] place such that in the years to come we see Syria as a friend and Syria as a responsible party in the Middle East.”
Obama said his administration was “helping the opposition organize, and we’re particularly interested in making sure that we’re mobilizing the moderate forces inside of Syria.”
“That’s the kind of leadership we’ve shown,” he said. “That’s the kind of leadership we’ll continue to show.”
It was already obvious a year ago that the SNC was “a Muslim Brotherhood front group, yet the Obama administration backed it anyway,” Mideast analyst Barry Rubin wrote in an analysis Thursday.
Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, said Clinton’s announcement this week “fails to recognize the bankruptcy” of that policy.
A proper response, he argued, would require stopping Qatar’s supply of weapons to Muslim Brotherhood units in Syria, waking up to the pro-Brotherhood Turkish government’s “anti-American, pro-Islamist policies,” and understanding that Brotherhood governments in Egypt and Tunisia were opposed to the democracy and human rights they claim to support.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Thursday there was “an increased sense of urgency about the formation of this representative [Syrian] opposition leadership structure,” but disputed the notion that the U.S. was selecting leaders.
“After many months, the SNC has not succeeded in broadening its leadership, not to more insiders, not ethnically, and not geographically,” he told a briefing. “Meanwhile, we and other ‘Friends of the Syrian People’ have encountered individuals who have already displayed leadership and want to be part of Syria’s future.
“And so we’re bringing these people to the attention of the Doha participants. We’re not choosing anyone. Only the Syrian people can do that. Rather, we’re helping bring attention to a broader pool of candidates for the Syrian people to consider for future leadership.”
Ventrell refused to name any of the individuals the administration was putting forward.
He also declined to say exactly when the administration had taken the decision to pull its support for the SNC, saying he could not “pinpoint one date or another.”