Return of the Czech Communists

Vaclav Havel is turning over in his grave.

PRAGUE — The massive, red-stone headquarters of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) -- named after the two main regions of the Czech Republic -- is located on Prague's Street of Political Prisoners, just across from the capital's decayed art nouveau train station. The road was named in 1946 -- the very year that the Communists won a plurality in a democratic election -- in honor of resistance fighters imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. The Gestapo had located its headquarters on this same street, in a massive building once owned by a prominent Jewish family. So it is that the twin horrors of Nazi and communist oppression continue to haunt this corner of the Czech capital.

When I suggest to Jiri Dolejs, KSCM vice chairman and member of Parliament, that the location of the party's headquarters on a street named after political prisoners is a grim irony, he chuckles and admits that there is an "obvious paradox." The communist regime that ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 until the peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution interned more than 250,000 political prisoners. The most famous, playwright Vaclav Havel, was elected the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. When Havel passed away last December at age 75, a spontaneous crowd descended upon Prague's central Wenceslas Square to erect an impromptu vigil; the candles would remain there for an entire month. For a brief moment, the world's attention focused on the heroic philosopher king and his legacy of nonviolent resistance to communist totalitarianism.

So it's strange that less than a year after Havel's death, communism in the Czech Republic is making a comeback. A series of recent surveys show that the party -- which has never fully apologized for its four decades of authoritarian rule -- is the second-most popular in the country, its support hovering slightly above 20 percent. The next parliamentary elections, which may be called sometime in upcoming weeks as the current center-right government hangs by a thread, could see the Communists return to power in coalition with the opposition Social Democrats. This would make the Czech Republic the first post-communist European country in which a communist party returned to government.

To those Czechs who still recite Havel's 1989 campaign slogan "Love and truth conquer lies and hatred" without irony, this should be nothing short of a national crisis. Some have argued that the KSCM ought to have been proscribed after the transition to democracy, as a far-right party was in 2010. Writing in the Czech liberal weekly Respekt, journalist Katerina Safarikova calls the conundrum over the Communist Party "a debate our fathers should have settled in the early 1990s," back when a ban would have been most popular. Political commentator Petr Novacek warns that, if the Social Democrats enter into coalition with the Communists, they would risk "becoming the black sheep of the Socialist International."

To Dolejs, however, this is all overreaction. He doesn't look or sound like the spokesman for a "hard-core Stalinist" party, which is how Safarikova describes the KSCM. With his cheery demeanor, mullet haircut, and ill-fitting sport coat, he resembles a Soviet-era used-car salesman, though the product he's selling -- state control of the economy -- is admittedly more dangerous than an old Skoda. Dolejs is an ardent science-fiction fan: Posters from various sci-fi conventions claim space on his office walls alongside those of Karl Marx and Albert Einstein, as well as campaign advertisements featuring Dolejs's smiling mug. This motley assortment may speak as much to my interlocutor's vanity as it does to the KSCM's lack of a serviceable history.

Dolejs joined the party in January 1989, at age 28. This was historically inopportune, as less than a year later the communist regime would be swept out of power. At a mere 51, Dolejs is significantly younger than most of the party's voters, whose average age is 75. A leader of the KSCM's reformist wing, he's one of the country's most well-known Communists, writing a blog for a popular Czech Internet news portal. In 2006, he was the target of a violent attack by far-right thugs, who beat his face to a bloody pulp while shouting anti-communist epithets. The Czech Parliament unanimously condemned the attack, and Dolejs earned widespread sympathy.

Today, Dolejs is all smiles. For years, Czech Communists seemed confined to the fringe: They were preoccupied with opposing the European Union, an unpopular mission in a country generally delighted to have been accepted into that club and appreciative of the funds that flowed from Brussels. But the European economic crisis has shaken confidence in the EU, despite the fact the Czech Republic has maintained its own currency, which has remained strong.

In the midst of the crisis, the current Czech government -- a coalition of three center-right parties that came to power in 2010 -- has passed stringent austerity measures that have contributed to its unpopularity. The package includes spending cuts of slightly over $3 billion for the upcoming year, as well as significant increases to personal-income and value-added taxes. The economy is shrinking and the country recently entered its third quarter of recession. In April, some 90,000 people took to Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest the reforms, in what amounted to the largest protest since the ones that toppled the communist regime in 1989. But now, 23 years later, anti-government anger is benefiting the Communists.

Adding to the center-right coalition's woes is a series of corruption scandals. In July, it barely survived a confidence vote, the fourth since it came to power. A poll conducted last December found that only 26 percent of Czechs are satisfied with their democracy, while a survey this year reported that most Czechs actually preferred the communist system to the present one. The Communists, sensing an opening after two decades in the political wilderness, have adroitly shifted their focus to attacks on corruption: A poster in the stairwell of the party offices depicts a vampire bat bearing the ruling parties' acronyms digging its fangs into the country. "How much more can our land take?" it asks. "This 'vampire' government must leave."


After 41 years of bloody, authoritarian rule, how can Communists be making a comeback? One answer lies in Czechoslovakia's unique political history. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was founded in 1921 and, unlike other communist parties in the region -- which would eventually develop reformist elements that could later transform the parties from within along social democratic lines -- it retained an orthodox mentality following the end of the Cold War. After the 1968 Prague Spring -- the brief era of reform that came to a violent end with a Soviet invasion -- the party expelled about a third of its members, about half a million people. To ensure that no trace of liberalization returned, the limited press freedoms that the erstwhile party leadership had permitted were retracted, state control over the economy was extended and deepened, and a whole new wave of Czechs and Slovaks went into exile.

So when 1989 arrived, there were few in the Communist Party who supported wide-scale reform; those who did were sidelined. Bowing to the peaceful uprising, Czech Communists nonetheless held fast to their Marxist creed. And while communist parties in the other countries of the former Eastern Bloc dissolved (Poland), transformed into social democratic parties (Hungary), or merged with pre-existing ones (Slovakia), the Czech Communists did no such thing. Rather, immediately following the transition to democracy, the party divided into its constituent parts -- one each for the Czech and Slovak republics -- and at least in what is now the Czech Republic, it has maintained its doctrinaire Marxist outlook ever since.

The KSCM's refusal to temper its communist dogma or adequately atone for its past rendered a merger with the Social Democratic Party, the country's oldest political movement, impossible. Keeping the Communist Party running, with its perennial 10 to 20 percent support, made sense. And the Communists have been successful at keeping the loyalty of their core members: According to a 2009 study by Mary Stegmaier, now at the University of Missouri, and Klara Plecita of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, two-thirds of KSCM members have been members for more than 40 years. 60 percent of Communist voters report having "always voted" Communist, a far higher rate of allegiance than any other party in the country can claim. By contrast, in neighboring Slovakia, the rump Communist Party earned less than 2 percent of the vote. In 2004, it merged with the country's Social Democrats.

The KSCM's rising popularity today, therefore, is partly due to accident and partly due to circumstance. By refusing to reform after the Soviet Union's collapse, it maintained its reason to exist -- and much of its appeal among a portion of the population nostalgic for the days of a government-guaranteed job, housing, and pension. At the same time, the Communists' comeback is also the result of events beyond their control -- namely, the country's current faltering economic situation and a nearly endless series of government corruption scandals.

The latter-day Communist attack on the austerity-enforcers has won over those who have gained least from democratic capitalism. As Stegmaier and Plecita found in their study of party supporters, "people with more negative assessments of the national economic situation or of democracy in the Czech Republic are also more likely to support the KSCM." A recent poll found that 70 percent of Czechs view the country's economic situation as "bad" or "very bad" and only 6 percent view it positively, meaning that the electorate is ripe for communist promises. As Czechs' attitudes toward their economy and democracy deteriorate, support for the radical, "anti-system" party will surely grow.

The recent austerity measures will only exacerbate this trend: They include cuts to the retirement system that may mean pensions for the elderly -- the communists' most loyal supporters -- will not keep up with inflation. "There is one group that could be severely affected, and that is old people," business analyst David Marek told Czech Radio earlier this year. In May, the country witnessed its first mass protest by pensioners. 

Dolejs insists that the communists have modernized and are capable of meeting today's challenges. "We lived through the 20th century, and we know the problems of an absolute, non-market economy," he tells me, echoing the party's stance that it has sufficiently accounted for its past. That claim hinges upon a congress in December 1989, one month after the Velvet Revolution ousted it from power, when the party expelled the leaders installed after the 1968 Soviet crackdown and issued a blanket apology "for the events following 1968 and for expelling and harassing the innocent."

Yet, for many Czechs, this "apology" was purely opportunistic. In just the month before the statement was issued, the party had already lost some 70,000 of its 1.7 million members and declared bankruptcy. And the party's behavior since the changes makes one doubt that it has learned anything about the past. Its 1996 campaign manifesto referred to the party's 40-year unchallenged rule as providing "one of the greatest periods of social and economic growth." Last December, when the Czech Parliament held a moment of silence to commemorate Havel, four Communist members exited in protest. (Dolejs points out that the majority of Communist deputies stayed in the room and that he signed Havel's condolence book.)

Contrast that behavior with the party's reaction to the death, just a day earlier, of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il: Party head Vojtech Filip sent a letter of condolence to his son and heir, Kim Jong Un, stating that the Communist Party "highly respected" the elder Kim, lauding him as a leader who "devoted himself to bringing happiness to the Korean people." When I ask Dolejs about this, he insists that the letter was a diplomatic formality. (The letter prompted the Czech justice minister to call for a police investigation into whether the communist leader had violated the country's constitution, which states that the "political system" must consist of "political parties respecting the basic democratic principles and rejecting violence as a means of asserting their interests.")

In the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution, important democratic figures like Havel resisted calls to ban the Communists, hoping to avoid the acrimony that marked Yugoslavia's breakup. In the Czech Republic's first post-communist election, the Communists won 13.2 percent of the vote, a healthy show of support that made any new attempts to ban the party politically perilous. Some who opposed a ban pointed to demographics as a reason not to worry about a future communist resurgence: Although the KSCM boasts more than twice as many paid-up members as any other political party, it is losing them at a rate of about 5,000 per year, presumably due to natural causes.

Contrary to Havel's hopes, however, the KSCM is not teetering on the edge of oblivion. It perpetually manages to attract some poorer members of society -- only 14 percent of KSCM voters have a secondary education -- and, crucially, those most disenchanted with the Czech political system. Sometimes, however, the party's fitful attempts to moderate its public face means that it must distance itself from what has historically been a natural constituency for communist parties -- radical youth. The biggest story to shake Czech politics in recent months was a 26-year old man's shooting President Vaclav Klaus with an air gun at a bridge-opening ceremony. A communist party supporter, the assailant told the media his mock assassination attempt was aimed at a man "blind and deaf to the laments of the people."

Europe's economic crisis has been manna from heaven for out-of-power left-wing parties, and the Czech Communists have taken advantage by abandoning their ideological condemnations of capitalism in favor of practical attacks on corruption, oligarchs, and biting austerity measures. Under communism, Dolejs says, "the shadow economy" accounted for about 6 to 7 percent of the total economy, whereas now it comprises about 20 percent. "We're not connected at all with the rich and these powerful circles, so even for that reason the people can trust us," he says. This talk sounds ironically reminiscent of the post-communism critiques registered by Havel, who often complained about the "mafia capitalism" and consumerism that besieged the country after 1989.

So, paradoxically, the very party that ruled the country with an iron fist for over four decades is positioning itself as the anti-establishment option. A recent KSCM resolution attacking the coalition government declared that "the measures for limiting both democracy and citizens' free speech have been carried, the actions of the authorities in criminal proceedings is openly influenced in favour of either members or supporters of right-wing parties, the security of citizens is not guaranteed." This is remarkably tone-deaf coming from a party that eliminated democracy and free speech, staged show trials, and routinely violated the most basic rights of the citizenry for 41 years.

Nevertheless, there's a risk that the Communists just may get away with it. Widespread dissatisfaction with the coalition government continues to grow. Meanwhile, the Communists' attacks on Czech oligarchs and political profiteers may be winning over those who have gained least from the transition to democratic capitalism, particularly at this moment of continentwide economic crisis. For some Czechs, it's enough to make them nostalgic for the old days of (at least, imagined) equality.

But the party's schizophrenic messaging -- lauding Kim Jong Il while making sweeping statements of having turned away from the bad old days -- can make deciphering its motives difficult. Dolejs says there are only negligible difference between the programs of the Communists and Social Democrats, going out of his way to disassociate his party with its historical record. "There is no real difference between the KSCM and [the Social Democratic Party], and there cannot be a political or economic monopoly on the order of the last regime," he tells me. But if the Communists are not altogether different from the more popular Social Democrats, why not simply join them?


The KSCM's failure to merge with the Social Democrats has undoubtedly hampered the cause of left-wing politics in the Czech Republic. All the main parties refuse to work with the Communists at the national level: The Social Democrats, cognizant of communism's century-long history of fatally undermining democratic socialists, have gone so far as to enshrine this principle in their party's governing documents via the so-called "Bohumin Resolution," which forbids "political cooperation with extremist political parties," including the KSCM.

Prohibiting cooperation with the only other major party on the left, however, severely inhibits the Social Democrats' ability to govern. Although the Social Democrats received more votes than any other party in the 2010 parliamentary elections, its failure to form a coalition -- which it could easily have done were it not for the Bohumin Resolution -- led to the formation of today's widely unpopular center-right government. Unsurprisingly, then, some Social Democrats support a coalition with the KSCM on pragmatic grounds.

Former Social Democratic Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek summed up this view in 2005, arguing, "The communists will never again control this country. I think they have been unnecessarily turned into a bête noire. Stalin is no longer in the Kremlin; there is no Comintern or Soviet Union; the international situation is completely different.… The KSCM will have to be integrated into the democratic spectrum whether it wishes so or not."

In the years since Paroubek's remark, the Social Democrats have formed coalitions with the Communists on the municipal and regional levels. For this reason, Dolejs says, the subject of the Communists re-entering government federally is "losing its taboo as a topic for conversation."

The Czech political leader doing more than any other to ensure that the topic ceases being taboo is an unlikely one: the scion of a family with a long history of anti-communist agitation. Jiri Dienstbier Jr. -- a Social Democratic Party senator and a candidate for the Czech presidency -- is the son of one of the initial signatories of Charter 77, the dissident-drafted plea calling upon the Czechoslovak communist regime to respect human rights. Following the collapse of communism, Jiri Dienstbier Sr. became the country's first post-communist foreign minister.

The younger Dienstbier meets with me in his office at the base of fairy tale–esque Prague Castle complex. He learned politics at the feet of his father and was an anti-communist student leader at the time of the Velvet Revolution. Along with his surname, his reputation for plain-spokenness has made him the country's most popular politician. "I would feel like a mafia member if I tried to negotiate with these people," Dienstbier told the Prague Post two years ago when, as the Social Democrats' candidate for Prague mayor, he was asked how he could consider a coalition with those from the leading conservative party.

According to Dienstbier, the debate over whether the KSCM is a democratic one is hypocritical. "If it is a democratic party, we should treat it as any other democratic party, including coalition potential," he says. "The second possibility -- it's not a democratic party -- and then such party is not allowed to be active, should be banned, according to our constitution and laws."

Dienstbier's view is that the KSCM would be a legitimate governing partner. "There are some speeches of some Communist politicians which are not acceptable from a moral point of view," he acknowledges, "but it's not like they pose a threat to the democratic system in the country."

Some have attributed Dienstbier's position to political calculation, and there's no doubt that opening the cordon around the Communists would markedly improve the Social Democrats' chances of governing. But Dienstbier's family history also gives weight to his position: His father, who worked as an underground journalist after being fired from state radio and stripped of his Communist Party membership following the Prague Spring, was sentenced to prison, alongside Havel, for three years in 1979. After his release, he was relegated to work as a boiler man, menial labor being the only available employment for regime opponents (Havel worked in a beer factory). In other words, Dienstbier would have more reason than most to see the Czech Communists permanently relegated to the dustbin of history. "It's nonsense" that he has any illusions about Communists, he says. (Dienstbier's call for cooperation with the communists has been endorsed by fellow presidential candidate and former Social Democratic Prime Minister Milos Zeman).

What the current debate over the role of the Czech Communists reveals is a country that has avoided an honest assessment of its recent history for the purposes of a hasty conversion to market capitalism. In the minds of most Czechs, communism is frequently lumped in with fascism as a twin legacy of the Czech past. Yet, this is simplistic -- fascism came to Czechoslovakia on the back of Adolf Hitler's tanks, while communism arrived through the ballot box.

To make matters worse, the process of removing Communist officials from power avoided grappling with uncomfortable questions regarding many Czechs' collaboration with the regime. The process of lustration -- meaning "shedding of light" -- excluded senior Communist officials from high-level government positions, while those working below them had to undergo a classified screening process in which their histories were evaluated for evidence of collaboration. But there were no trials of former Communist officials and, as lustration hearings and appeals were all confidential, little opportunity for the country to process the role that individual citizens played in the communist regime. This reinforced the tendency of most Czechs to imagine communism as something imposed from abroad, rather than a system that was voted into power and to which a majority of Czechs, at least initially, assented.

"By removing the discussion of collaboration and responsibility from public settings such as the Parliament and turning it into a bureaucratic process, the lustration law may, in fact, have helped to inhibit discussion of the past in general," Kieran Williams, then a lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, wrote in 1999.

Dolejs insists that the Communists have no interest in monopolizing power again, that they are merely a "party that guarantees the basic elementary well-being of every citizen." Regardless of how Communists present themselves, however, most Czechs seem to understand that the party is disguising its real intention to sidle back into power. The return to government of communists in a former Soviet-bloc country would be a jolt for Europe, a blow to the project of improving democracy and free markets -- and, in its way, a reflection of the cost of Europe's current turmoil.

For the Czechs, whose recent history is full of sorrow, it would be a huge reverse. I can't but stop and wonder what the late Havel would think as I leave the Communist Party's headquarters, beneath a giant sign looming inside the entryway reading "WE HAVE A SOLUTION" and make my way back onto the Street of Political Prisoners.

David Brauchli/Getty Images


Holding Civil Society Workshops While Syria Burns

Inside the State Department's very nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition.

For more photos of the violence in Syria, click here. 

ISTANBUL — Syria's bloody civil war is threatening to turn into a regional conflict. For six days in a row as of Oct. 8, Turkey has lobbed artillery into northern Syria in response to shells from President Bashar al-Assad's military landing on its territory.

Even as the conflict escalates, however, the United States still appears fixated on the peaceful activists who dominated the early days of what is now a 19-month revolt. U.S. policy remains geared to providing only nonlethal support to the Syrian opposition, which rebels and activists deride as useless to those fighting the insurgency. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are moving in to fill the vacuum left by the United States by supplying the rebels with lethal aid, bolstering their influence among the rebels.

The United States has consistently said Assad must relinquish power, but it has been hesitant to become heavily involved in Syria's insurgency. The U.S. financial commitment in Syria has been limited: At a meeting of the "Friends of Syria," a group of 70 countries supporting the opposition, the United States increased the funds it allotted to the Syrian opposition to $45 million. The amount allotted for humanitarian aid currently stands at $130 million.

The most overt form of assistance provided by the United States to the Syrian opposition is the State Department's Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS), an organization established to aid opposition activists trying to bring down the Assad regime and located in the trendy Cihangir neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul.

State Department strategic planner Maria Stephan, a prominent theorist of nonviolent resistance, was dispatched to oversee the training that OSOS provides to activists. Stephan, a State Department veteran whose foreign postings include Afghanistan and Libya, is the co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. She is also the former director of policy and research at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Stephan had already been meeting with activists in Istanbul for months before the OSOS trainings began in August, according to multiple activists who met with her during this time. She organizes and observes the training on civil resistance, media production, promoting anti-sectarian thought, and avoiding communications monitoring, according to a Syria-based activist who traveled to Istanbul for the OSOS trainings. Activists from other Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, conduct the workshops.

A British consultant also works with OSOS as an advisor, but he said he was not cleared by the State Department to speak about its activities. The State Department refused requests to interview Stephan.

The United States is relying on OSOS as one of its central points of contact with the Syrian opposition. During Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's August visit to Istanbul, she snubbed the Syrian National Council, which has failed to coalesce into a unified opposition body, and instead met with activists being trained by OSOS.

OSOS pays for activists' trip to Istanbul, as well as their stay in an upscale hotel if they can manage the perilous journey to Turkey. At the end of the training they are given a satellite phone and computer and are expected to return to Syria -- though not all do, according to activists familiar with OSOS.

"Most of them stayed outside of Syria. We were 34; only six of us came back," said an activist in Syria who attended one of the trainings. "I don't know about the equipment; I know those who are in Syria now with it."

OSOS also sends communications-related equipment into Syria through other avenues, though the amount is unclear. Activists have complained that the State Department's pledges of assistance have gone undelivered. "There is no kind of relief coming inside Syria. Where is the program you promised?" said one activist who attended OSOS training.

U.S. efforts to organize Syria's opposition also appear to be receiving help from the British. A Washington-based Syria analyst told Foreign Policy that OSOS was set up with funding from the State Department with the assistance of a Beirut-based consultancy firm called Pursue Ltd. Alistair Harris, Pursue's director, is a former British diplomat known for his work canvassing extremist groups in Palestinian camps in Beirut, the analyst said. Harris has also written a policy paper on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

An article in the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph initially described Harris as "a British political consultant overseeing the [nonlethal aid] programme." It was later edited to omit his name.

Via email, Harris denied that Pursue is "undertaking any activities relating to the Syrian opposition on behalf of the U.S. or any other project partner." However, he admitted his personal involvement in the program, writing that he is "involved in US assistance programming, but not through Pursue."

A second office, run by a company called Access Research Knowledge (ARK), has been opened a short walk from OSOS. There, another British consultant oversees a number of employees of various Western and Arab nationalities. When Foreign Policy visited the ARK office, at least two employees knew Harris by name.

At least one employee is involved with Pursue, and activists said it is acting as an advisor and intermediary for funding from "Friends of Syria" countries to the Syrian opposition. ARK also provides funds and consulting to a new opposition media outlet founded by a group of liberal-minded Syrian activists called BasmaSyria.

A State Department spokesperson described ARK as "an implementing partner" of the U.S. nonlethal-aid program.

"ARK is currently undertaking activities to support the nonviolent Syrian opposition and Syrian civil society," the spokesperson said. "Project activities involving hundreds of beneficiaries have taken place in Syria and neighboring states since the onset of the Syrian crisis. It shares the inclusive vision of a future Syria for all Syrians where the rule of law is applied equally and the people of Syria are represented by a legitimate, responsive, and democratically elected government."

The activists themselves see the projects as a way to get their message out to the world more effectively.

"They are just helping us. We didn't study media; we didn't study photography," said an activist who works for BasmaSyria, which has distributed videos via YouTube, Facebook, and the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya since August. The videos -- which are shot, written, and produced by the activists -- mainly target a Syrian audience and promote the idea that the uprising in Syria is not sectarian in nature. The small number of activists working for the group are from different religious backgrounds, including Alawites, and range from 21 to 55 years old.

"We are like a mini-Syria," one BasmaSyria activist said. Each activist receives a modest salary, equipment, and media training. When a new group of activists comes to Istanbul for OSOS training, BasmaSyria activists are called in to give them a brief pep talk.

Foreign Policy visited the BasmaSyria office in early October and was shown several of the group's videos. The activists say that their aim is to counter the Assad regime's narrative that the Syrian revolt is a sectarian conflict. "It's regime propaganda, a pretext to say this revolution is an Islamic revolution and Sunni will kill Alawi," one activist said. Another activist, a Christian woman from the city of Homs, furiously said that even prominent Western journalists have been paid "a lot" by the Syrian regime to promote a sectarian agenda in Syria.

The editing and narration of BasmaSyria's videos are more professional than most of the Syrian opposition videos uploaded to YouTube. But with Syria's civil war escalating -- more than 30,000 people have reportedly been killed in the conflict -- even some activists fear that the nonlethal aid doesn't respond to the opposition's true needs.

"I am also not convinced that it will be useful," said one of the activists who attended OSOS training in August before returning to Syria. "Because it was not organized. They made this course training for activists. But we have the Free Syrian Army."

The activist met with Clinton during her August visit to Istanbul, but the encounter only heightened this person's impression of how far behind the United States is on Syria.

"She listened to us for 15 minutes. We talked about the projects [that the activists wanted to run inside Syria]," the activist said. "She said that America will help Syria to build their civil society, so if you have a project or program they would be happy to help us. She asked us to tell her if there are really effective people inside Syria that have a project, if there are people that they should give money or if they should not."

A State Department spokesperson in Washington did not respond to a request for further information about its Syria program. Discussions with activists, however, suggested that the resources available to OSOS remain limited.

"In truth, we are not talking about major expenditures here," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a prominent Syrian activist and fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, cautioning that OSOS was too new to assess its effectiveness.

The United States appears to have given the nod for its allies to provide the armed opposition with a limited amount of lethal aid. A May Washington Post article reported that U.S. officials had "expanded contacts with opposition military forces" in order to vet them as possible recipients of military supplies delivered by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. An Oct. 6 New York Times article, however, found that the United States had "discouraged" both these countries from providing the rebels with heavier weaponry, such as anti-aircraft or anti-tank missiles.

Rather than providing military support now, much of the U.S. effort appears to be dedicated to planning for the period following the collapse of the Assad regime. The Pentagon has coordinated contingency plans with Turkey, Jordan, and Israel to handle the possible flood of refugees across Syria's borders and also to secure the regime's stockpiles of chemical weapons. In August, President Barack Obama warned that Assad's use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" that could provoke Western military intervention.

These steps, however, fall far short of the Syrian opposition's expectations. After months of U.S. inaction, the mood among anti-Assad groups is turning perceptibly against the United States.

"The support the USA gives is just communication tools and training," said Mohammed Sarmini, a spokesperson for the Syrian National Council. "Just that. But I think the Syrian people want more than that. They want relief, medical, and food and supplies, like this. And we want, exactly, clearly, we want weapons."

These complaints, however, seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Washington. In addition to OSOS and BasmaSyria, the United States has also funded a workshop for Syrian women held in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep. The project was about having a "vision for Syria in 2020," said the Syrian activist who organized the workshop. Funding was provided through the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.

At the workshop, Syrian women developed ideas about what they want different aspects of their country -- the economy, health services, security, and civil society, for instance -- to look like in the future. "Syria didn't have institutions before," the activist said. "Any support for building institutions or building capacity is very welcome, and it is very effective.… The more the better."

Asked what participants did during the workshops, she said, "Basically, it was about explaining personal stories, talking about the past and the present as well and planning for the future."

An activist in Syria said that the State Department had also funded a project for Syrian lawyers and judges, but the organizers were not reachable for comment.

The State Department has said the effect of the OSOS training will best be seen after the regime falls. However, the relationship between the armed opposition -- which believes it is taking the greatest risk in fighting the regime -- and civil society activists is tense.

"Some of [the armed opposition] think we are doing a useless job, and some of them think we are doing a good job," the organizer of the workshop for women said of the armed opposition. "At some point I think there will be some conflict."

The BasmaSyria activist based in Istanbul said the question is not if there will be more violence after the regime falls, but rather how much -- and what forces can mitigate it.

"If the U.S. closes its eyes, it will open them and find it lost all its strategic power inside Syria, and find Syria like Afghanistan," she said.

Asked about OSOS, she said, "To me these nonviolence workshops are blah blah blah. I will never attend these workshops. I hate violence, but the workshops are a waste of time and money. We need rockets and anti-aircraft [weapons]."

Immediately after making the statement, she cooled. The activist said that the training had valuable aspects, such as helping her shoot and edit powerful videos to promote her view of Syria's revolution and to document human rights violations in a way that the material could be submitted as evidence to the International Criminal Court.

"We want a civil state. It is important to train activists about this.… So these people can rebuild Syria tomorrow," she said. "It's very important now -- not tomorrow, now. We had nothing, in 40 years, not one word, just clapping for the president. We have no idea about freedom."