Syrian opposition leaders of all stripes will convene in Qatar next week to form a new leadership body to subsume the opposition Syrian National Council, which is widely viewed as ineffective, consumed by infighting, and little respected on the ground, The Cable has learned.
The State Department has been heavily involved in crafting the new council as part of its effort oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and build a more viable and unified opposition. In September, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian activists who were flown in to New York for a high-level meeting that has not been reported until now.
During the third and final presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obam's Syria policy as a failure to show "leadership" in laying the groundwork for the post-Assad era and called for "a form of council that can take the lead in Syria."
In fact, over the last several months, according to U.S. officials and Syrian opposition figures, the State Department has worked to broaden its contacts inside the country, meeting with military commanders and representatives of local governance councils in a bid to bypass the fractious SNC.
Many in the SNC are accordingly frustrated with the level of support they've gotten in Washington. "The Obama administration is trying to systematically undermine the SNC. It's very unfortunate," one SNC leader said told The Cable.
But U.S. officials are equally frustrated with an SNC they say has failed to attract broad support, particularly from the Alawite and Kurdish minorities. The new council is an attempt to change that dynamic. Dozens of Syrian leaders will meet in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Nov. 3 and hope to announce the new council as the legitimate representative of all the major Syrian opposition factions on Nov. 7, one day after the U.S. presidential election.
The Obama administration sees the new council as a potential interim government that could negotiate with both the international community and - down the line - perhaps also the Syrian regime. The SNC will have a minority stake in the new body, but some opposition leaders are still skeptical that the effort will succeed.
The Qatar meeting will include dozens of opposition leaders from inside Syria, including from the provincial revolutionary councils, the local "coordination committees" of activists, and select people from the newly established local administrative councils.
"We call it a proto-parliament. One could also think of it as a continental congress," a senior administration official told The Cable.
U.S. officials and opposition leaders are calling the initiative the "Riad Seif plan," named after the former Syrian parliamentarian and dissident who was imprisoned after he signed the Damascus Declaration on respect for Syrians' human rights in 2005. He was released in 2011, beaten up by a Shabiha gang in Noember 2011, and finally allowed to leave Syria in June 2012.
Seif is central to the formation of the new council and is seen as a figure with broad credibility with both the internal and external Syrian opposition.