The government of President Bashar al-Assad is firing tank shells and rockets at unarmed civilians. Thousands of people are dying. The images are horrific. Indignation mounts around the world.
Meanwhile, the main Syrian opposition group is still trying to get a proper office in Washington.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of Syrians arguing the opposition's case in the United States -- including many illustrious activists with long records of agitation against Bashar. They include people like long-time dissident Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies.
But the Syrian National Council, the Syrian opposition group formed in August, still doesn't have a formal representative office in the American capital. It's awaiting permission from the Department of Justice, which registers all foreign entities that intend to lobby the U.S. government. When SNC members come to town for discussions with U.S. officials, they often use Ziadeh's office as a base. (He is also a member of the SNC and often functions as its de facto spokesman in the United States.)
Part of the problem, of course, is the much-publicized dysfunction of the SNC itself. Many of its leaders are long-time exiles who are often criticized for indulging in impotent feuding in places like Paris and Istanbul while the folks back home confront the full force of Assad's rage. It's also notably fractious, reflecting, to some extent, the diversity of a country that boasts myriad regional and sectarian differences. Secular nationalists are at odds with members of the Muslim Brotherhood (who are thought to dominate the SNC, even though they tend to stay out of the limelight).
Perhaps this will change. The SNC did get a boost at recent Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, which brought the opposition together with emissaries from some 60 countries. The diplomats recognized the SNC as "a legitimate representative" of the Syrian people -- a formula that still fell short of acknowledging the SNC as a full-fledged government in exile (not that anyone in the group was complaining).
It's a move that inspires hope, but it has failed to close the SNC's credibility gap. A few days after Tunis, some of the SNC's most prominent members announced they were forming something called the "Syrian Patriotic Group." Though they're staying within the SNC (at least for the moment), their aim is clearly to goad their colleagues into taking up a more decisive stance in support of the fight against Assad.
If they are to succeed, getting Washington on board will be key. Lately there has been lots of hopeful talk about creating a safe haven on the border with Turkey. But this is unlikely to happen unless the Obama administration gives its OK. (Some Arab countries have reportedly already started funneling weapons to the Free Syrian Army, the armed opposition wing made up of defectors from Assad's military, and this is a process that will probably continue regardless of the White House position. But it's not clear what effect this will have unless the rebels can take delivery of tanks and artillery to counter Assad's heavy weapons.)