Christian Caryl

Why Washington Is the Syrian Opposition's Next Battlefront

Syria’s opposition faces an uphill battle in its efforts to win backing from U.S. policymakers.

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.)

So far nothing like that appears to be in the offing. "Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now," President Obama said earlier this month. "He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately." But he showed little inclination to go farther.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did him one better. She worried aloud that weapons sent to the Syrian opposition could find their way to al Qaeda, and bemoaned the lack of "an opposition that is actually viable." SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun's recent statement that the group is prepared to collaborate with Hezbollah if need be probably won't assuage such fears.

Without a proper SNC presence in Washington, the burden of the opposition effort to shape policy has fallen on the shoulders of a group called the Syrian American Council, formed in 2005 to promote the development of democracy back in the homeland. The SAC started by trying to initiate a dialogue with the Baathist regime in Damascus. Last year, when Assad commanded his troops to open fire on peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Syrian cities, the SAC switched its emphasis to supporting the opposition.

Mahmoud Khattab, director of the SAC, says that his group has had many talks with U.S. officials in recent weeks. Lately the SAC has been pleading above all for Washington's support for the safe haven idea. So is anyone listening? "So far I haven't heard a clear plan from the U.S. about what they will do," says Khattab. "They keep talking about sanctions and peaceful solution. But the situation has been going on for 11 months now."

The Syrian opposition in the U.S. ought to have an easy job. Bashar has long been one of Washington's sworn enemies. Khattab, who notes that he and the SNC liaise on a regular basis, claims that their message is finding a warm reception in Congress (though it isn't always entirely apparent that this is the case).

There are deeper forces at work. The United States is understandably hesitant to intervene directly in Syria. The country is a tangle of sectarian and ethnic complexities that sits astride just about every strategic dilemma in the Middle East. The Baathist regime is a sworn enemy of Israel and a close friend of Iran. Assad's power base among the heterodox Alawite minority pits him against an increasingly bitter Sunni majority. Civil war in Syria could easily spark a regional conflagration, spilling over into neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, or Jordan.

"I'm a fan of the U.S.," says Syria expert Randa Slim. "I think they're playing it exactly right." She says that the Obama administration should beware getting too deeply involved. Most people in the region are already deeply suspicious of U.S. motives. The job of the Americans, she says, should be to marshal an international consensus, nudging the Europeans and others to lend more support to the opposition even while pressing it to become more inclusive and representative. "Leading from behind fits perfectly for a number of reasons," says Slim. Judging by their actions so far, it would seem that Clinton and Obama share this stance.

But didn't the U.S. support military action against Colonel Qaddafi? Sure. But Libya is relatively isolated, its population small. The National Transitional Council, the main opposition group, established itself just two months after the uprising against Qaddafi began, and boasted a relatively coherent leadership. Fighters loyal to the NTC managed to establish a defensible base area, in the eastern city Benghazi, early in the conflict. All this made it relatively easy for Washington to provide military support.

The situation in and around Syria bears little resemblance to this scenario. What's more, a comprehensive plan to aid the rebels depends on the good graces of Syria's neighbors. The most important of them is Turkey, whose long border with Syria is closest to many of the areas now in revolt. But so far Ankara has shown little inclination to get drawn into a Syrian conflict.

In case anyone forgets, another member of Khattab's group, a young doctor named Amer Sayed, reminds us what's at stake. Sayed arrived in the United States just a few weeks ago from his hometown of Idlib, where he remains in touch with family members who must confront not only snipers and artillery bombardment but also have to cope with shortages of diesel fuel, electricity, and water as they struggle to survive a harsh winter.

Supplies have been cut by the government to punish the rebels -- whether they are men, women, children, or the elderly. Sayed describes operating on victims of the crackdown in a dirty apartment without sanitized medical instruments, or being humiliated by government thugs who force shivering people to sing pro-Assad anthems in return for fuel rations. The death toll, in Idlib and elsewhere, continues to mount. (In its latest estimate, the U.N. says that more than 7500 Syrians have died as a result of attacks by government forces.)

By now such things should not really count as news. The question is whether the international community can be moved to effective action, whatever form that may take. If the state of play in Washington right now is any indication, though, the prospects for Syria's opposition are not good.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Rude Awakening

Promoting democracy in places like Egypt or Iraq is about changing the status quo. So why are we so surprised when it turns out that not everyone is in favor?

Imagine this: You're a member of the post-revolutionary Egyptian cabinet, one of the very last holdovers from the Mubarak era. You also happen to be a civilian, so you can't depend on your buddies in the officers' club to protect you. And on top of everything else you're a woman, in a society that doesn't exactly have a rich history of high-ranking female politicians. What do you do to shore up your career?

Why, you go after the Americans, of course.

Faiza Abul-Naga, Egypt's somewhat ironically titled Minister of International Cooperation, has vastly boosted her notoriety by placing herself at the center of a scandal involving U.S. democracy assistance. On December 29, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of 17 local and foreign non-government organizations around the country, accusing them of the illegal use of funds and various other crimes. (The photo above shows Egyptian security forces  guarding the Cairo office of the U.S. National Democratic Instititue, one of the U.S. groups raided.) Several observers, including U.S. Senator John McCain, have pointed the finger at Abul-Naga, who is said to have orchestrated the crackdown on NGOs as a way of diverting attention from the poor performance of the military-led government. The minister is not making any effort dispel that impression: "Every country has pressure cards in the political field," she apparently told an Egyptian newspaper. "Egypt is no exception."

The U.S. reaction veered between indignation and disbelief. "We are very concerned because this is not appropriate in the current environment," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The raids put Egypt's ruling military junta and the U.S. "on an unprecedented collision course," puffed Newsweek. Analysts dutifully pointed out that the raids could jeopardize the $1.3 billion in direct aid the U.S. pays to the Egyptian military each year. Now the Egyptians say they're preparing to put the 43 civil society workers they've arrested (including 16 Americans) on trial for their presumed offenses.

Amid all the fuss linger several unanswered questions: Why would the generals do such a stupid thing? Are they thinking straight? Are they really in control? After all, the organizations under attack are simply trying to promote democracy and help build institutions in the wake of Egypt's chaotic revolution. Surely even the generals ought to be able to understand that such efforts are in the interest of all Egyptians.

In fact, though, the commentators should have been asking a different question about Abul-Naga -- namely, what took her so long. After all, the Americans have been deeply unpopular in Egypt for years. Washington supported Mubarak for decades. Washington is a close friend of Israel. Washington has been invading and occupying Muslim countries. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 70 percent of Egyptians were opposed to further U.S. funding to their country, which they view (without knowing much about the details) as interference in their internal affairs. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that some enterprising Egyptian politician decided to capitalize on such sentiments.

To understand Egypt's NGO scandal, it might help to look at another Arab country where the U.S. has spent billions trying to promote democratic institutions: Iraq. Earlier this month The New York Times reported that Washington is planning to slash the civilian presence at its massive embassy in Baghdad. Though the State Department pushed back against the paper's claim that the plans could mean a 50 percent reduction in the staff there, it still looks likely that the cuts will be substantial.

What's obvious, though, is that the Americans are not going to be able to maintain the ambitious presence that they had hoped would buttress their influence in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. As recently as a year ago, we were still being told that the embassy's civilian staff would grow even as the troops departed. But now that the "war on terror" seems to be winding down, so, too, is enthusiasm for the much-touted civilian engagement that was supposed to reinforce and extend America's achievements on the battlefield. Remember all that impressive talk from Hillary Clinton about ramping up "civilian power"?

That's history now. For one thing, America has already spent reams of money to fund grand democracy-building exercises like the ones followed its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Those efforts were never particularly popular with ordinary Americans even before the financial crisis devastated the U.S. economy. Remember how George W. Bush campaigned against "nation building" as a presidential candidate back in 2000? President Obama returned to the theme last year, memorably declaring in one of his speeches last year that "it is time to focus on nation-building here at home."

Promoting sound institutions and good governance in other countries was never going to be a push-over. It requires enormous amounts of time and labor. It's expensive. And it's hard to track results. Here's what one Iraqi who works for a U.S.-funded NGO wrote me in a recent email:

For more than a year now there have been signs that the U.S. is losing interest in the civilian aspects of the transition in Iraq -- transparency, accountability, rule of law, participation, rights, etc. It's sad to watch. There is a U.S. psychological retreat that began when the last Provincial Reconstruction Teams were closed down, in September 2010 I believe, accompanied by American disappointment in the results of U.S. involvement in Iraq since 2003... The political problems in Iraq were so intractable in 2010 and 2011 and stability so precarious -- still is -- that the U.S. has little leisure to worry about democracy, rule of law, etc...

The other point of this story it's that it's not at all clear that the Iraqi government wants those civilians to be in Baghdad in the first place. The Times story pointed out that one of the major problems that could be prompting the drawdown is the Iraqi government's reluctance to issue visas and permits to the people who are supposed to work at the embassy. Many of those people, it turns out, are private security contractors -- widely hated by the Iraqis since the notorious 2007 incident involving guards from the now-defunct security company Blackwater, who were accused of shooting 17 Iraqi civilians.

The Iraqi resentment of such firms, which during the U.S. occupation all too often acted like a law unto themselves, is entirely understandable. The problem is that the civilians who have far more benign agendas -- like, say, the United States Institutes of Peace staffers who have been training local Iraqis in the urgently needed skill of conflict resolution -- can't do their work without guards to protect them.

But it doesn't stop there. The Iraqi government also has its equivalents of Faiza Abul-Naga. For them, the presence of all those police instructors and anti-corruption consultants is an affront, an irritant, and perhaps even a threat. Of late, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has shown every indication that he aims to concentrate power in himself, his political party, and his Shiite sectarian brethren. Does he really care whether those U.S.-funded democracy promoters get their visas? Probably the opposite.

We Americans tend to see promoting democracy in other societies as a gentle, win-win, do-gooding exercise. What we tend to forget, though, is that introducing democratic institutions into previously authoritarian societies means changing the structure of power. And we should hardly expect those who are losing power to step aside quietly. Those catchwords so favored by the humanitarians may sound harmless, but in certain quarters they have explosive force. "Transparency" is a curse to the intriguer in the shadows. "Accountability" is a nightmare for the unelected autocrat. And "good governance" fills the corrupt official with dread.

Do I believe that democracy promoters (American and otherwise) should keep doing what they're doing? Absolutely. But those of us who hail them for their efforts should never forget that what they're doing is not charity work. It's politics. And politics is no business for the faint of heart.

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images