The Obama administration is pushing this week to create a new Syrian opposition council that would have more legitimacy in the uprising against President Bashar Assad and prevent al Qaeda terrorists and other “bad actors” from hijacking the revolt, according to a U.S. official familiar with the initiative.
In recent months, the United States has recognized that the existing Syrian National Council has been unable to unify the various rebel groups and direct international aid to them because its members are largely exiles who have not lived in Syria for decades.
The opposition has remained fractious and disorganized, and extremist groups have stepped in. In at least one Syrian province, al Qaeda has begun distributing subsidized oil to Syrians suffering from the civil war, according to the official who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Weapons from Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations are flowing directly to the rebels instead of the Syrian National Council, making it more likely they fall into the wrong hands.
“Arms are going to rebels directly because there is no meaningful structure, no opposition group that the international community is willing to back or coalesce around,” the official said. “The longer we wait, the more dangerous the situation will be.”
He said he weapons could fall into the hands of “bad actors,” a reference to Islamists attempting to exert their influence in the revolt.
Under pressure from Washington, council leaders agreed Monday to expand the structure to include dissidents from other groups, as they convened for the second day of a four-day meeting in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.
A council spokesman said the assembly will “accommodate 200 new members representing 13 political groups and independent” dissidents.
A small team of U.S. officials led by the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, is in Qatar for the Arab League-sponsored meetings with opposition leaders. However, contrary to some critics’ assertions, the opposition summit is not a U.S. effort to pick the council members or Syria’s next leaders, the official said.
The de facto leader of the initiative for a new opposition assembly is Riad Seif, a 66-year-old Syrian politician and businessman who left Syria a few months ago after being imprisoned by Syrian authorities. Mr. Seif has said he has no aspirations to become the next president.
Some members of the Syrian National Council are furious about the idea of a new assembly, but the United States is trying to assure them that they will not be marginalized in a new body that will include about 50 seats, with at least 15 reserved for current members of the Syrian National Council. Internal opposition leaders will have 15 to 20 seats, and the rest will go to other expatriate groups.
Council leader Abdelbaset Sieda was skeptical about whether the United States and other nations would increase aid and support if a new assembly were formed.
“We faced this situation before, when we formed” the Syrian National Council last year, he told reporters in Qatar. “There were promises like that, but the international community in fact did not give us the support needed for the [council] to do its job.”
The United States has stuck to its pledge not to send weapons to embattled rebel fighters, but officials recognize the need for those weapons to be channeled to the right groups to end the bloody 19-month-old uprising that has cost about 30,000 lives, according to some estimates.
“Without arms and guidance, this will continue for a very long time,” the official said.