Middle East

Syria conflict: Will US succeed in reshaping opposition?

Free Syrian Army fighters. Photo: September 2012
Image caption Syria's opposition has been deeply divided from the outset

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for a new Syrian opposition more representative of those fighting on the frontlines rather than exiles signals the most forceful attempt yet by Washington to reshape the fragmented Syrian opposition.

The goal is to create a new political body that could not just provide a political dimension in the ongoing struggle, but one that could potentially offer an alternative leadership to that of the Assad regime, at least for a transitional period.

The US push is linked to a crucial meeting of opposition figures in Doha next week.

This gathering, under Saudi auspices, promises to mark the effective demise of the Syrian National Council (SNC), once the great hope of Western opponents of the Syrian regime.

This body was described by Mrs Clinton as one that could "no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition". It was too fragmented; too heavily based upon exiles and unwilling or unable to attract support from crucial minority groups inside Syria.

Fragmentation fears

The nature and cohesion of the Syrian opposition is crucial for a number of reasons.

At the most basic level, Western governments who oppose the Assad regime need a single address for their diplomatic contacts.

The struggle on the ground in Syria shows no sign of ending. Indeed, well-informed observers fear that the most likely outcome now is a protracted civil war which could take on an ever more sectarian dimension.

The recent upsurge of fighting between Kurdish elements and Arab rebel forces in northern Syria is a portent of what might be to come.

Fears about the eventual break-up of Syria or the spillover of the conflict into other countries - notably Lebanon and Iraq - are very real.

So too are concerns that - amidst the chaos - Jihadist groups are prospering and the risk of the conflict acting as a magnet for such elements only grows over time.

This general chaos together with the Jihadist threat is part of the reason that, up to now, the US in particular has been very reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition.

This might not necessarily change overnight, but an effective and inclusive opposition body with real links on the ground and a sense of a political future might prompt a change of US policy over time.

High stakes

The record of outside engagement with the Syrian opposition has been mixed.

From the outset there was limited knowledge and perhaps a failure to appreciate the resilience of the Assad regime.

Loose diplomatic gatherings like Friends of Syria grouping achieved little.

The Turkey-based SNC was a truly national body in name only. Ankara, Washington and the Gulf capitals were not always on the same page. Competition for influence over a post-Assad Syria is already under way.

So could the body that emerges from the Doha meeting be any different?

US diplomatic muscle is important but probably not decisive. How far representatives of those on the ground in Syria will be able to participate is still unclear.

But the stakes are enormous. Post-Assad chaos in Syria could spread to engulf the whole region.

An effective Syrian opposition on its own will not prevent this. But it is a vital element if such a scenario is to be avoided.