Syrian Opposition Movement Hampered By Fractures

On Thursday, there were talks in Qatar aimed at restructuring and reinforcing Syria's opposition movement.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to efforts aimed at restructuring the Syrian opposition. The main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, is increasingly seen as ineffective, so people trying to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad are meeting right now in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. NPR's Kelly McEvers is there and as she reports, the goal is to give the opposition more credibility with Syrians and the international community.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The new initiative is being headed by a man named Riad Seif. He's a long time dissident who spent years in Syrian prison. He says the new group would be a kind of transitional government until the Syrian regime falls.

RIAD SEIF: (Speaking foreign language)

MCEVERS: He says the new group would include some members of the existing Syrian National Council, but it would also include new members, many of whom come from inside Syria. Seif himself says he has no interest in being a leader.

SEIF: Doesn't matter which person will be chosen, but anyhow we speak about institutions.

MCEVERS: The so-called Seif plan is backed by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised doubts about the legitimacy of the Syrian National Council last week and said the new group should be more inclusive. But perhaps the strongest backer of the new initiative is the host of this latest meeting, Qatar. Qatari officials say they want to see a unified opposition and no more bickering over who gets what.

As of this airing, it appears the various factions have agreed on a general framework for the new group, but not on who will be in it. Salman Shaikh directs the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank here. He says the new body could be a reliable conduit for international aid money for relief and reconstruction in Syria, but he says the international community needs to step up in other ways, too.

SALMAN SHAIKH: There is an important aspect here. It's not just about money. These people need protection.

MCEVERS: By protection, he means some kind of safe zone inside Syria. Turkey announced yesterday it hopes to ask NATO for patriot missiles to be stationed along the Turkish/Syrian border. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently said his government is willing to talk directly with Syrian rebels. Shaikh says both moves reflect shifts in policy toward providing some protection to the rebel fighters in Syria.

But he says none of these countries can act without the U.S.

SHAIKH: I think the Europeans are there or getting there. I think the region is certainly there. I think it's where we're waiting for Mr. Obama.

MCEVERS: The Obama administration for months has said it will not seek to impose a no-fly zone in Syria like it did in Libya, nor will it provide weapons to Syrian rebels. There was hope here that President Obama's reelection this week might mean a shift in his administration's policy, but so far, Syrian opposition members say the U.S. has not indicated any change. Shaikh says if the U.S. maintains this position, it's making a big mistake.

SHAIKH: I'm afraid the Obama administration's missed a very important strategic opportunity in order to be an active participant and partner in shaping the new Syria. Now, it's probably the last chance, literally, for the United States to step up.

MCEVERS: If they don't, he says, not only will they miss the chance to engage with a country that's in the heart of the Middle East, but they also might encourage extremists to fill the gap. Shaikh says he regularly hears from Syrians about how militant Islamist groups are taking hold in Syria. The extremists are here, they tell him, and our people have never been more ready to join them. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Doha.

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