BEIRUT – Members of Syria's opposition-in-exile bristled Thursday at the Obama administration's suggestion that Washington will handpick more representative leaders at a crucial conference in Qatar next week.
The new U.S. push appears aimed at creating a unified leadership that could work more closely with the West. But there are signs of resistance among deeply fractured opposition groups wary of attempts by foreign backers to dictate strategy in the civil war against President Bashar Assad.
"This direct tutelage and these dictates are not acceptable to the Syrian people anymore," said Zuhair Salem, the London-based spokesman for Syria's banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition group. The Brotherhood is part of the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which is dominated by exiles.
Syrians and the U.S. administration have grown increasingly frustrated as the opposition proved unwilling or unable to coalesce. The U.S. and its allies have long bemoaned the lack of a cohesive leadership, and there is little doubt that this has held back more robust foreign aid and involvement to bolster the opposition in its fight.
With the battle for control of Syria almost certainly to be decided on the battlefield, the political opposition led by exiles is being further sidelined.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration said it would push for a major shakeup in the opposition leadership so that it better represents the fighters risking their lives on the frontlines. At least 36,000 people have been killed since the uprising began 19 months ago, according to anti-regime activists.
It was a signal that Syria's political opposition is increasingly irrelevant, as it's become clearer that the conflict will be decided by fighters.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the administration was suggesting names and organizations that should feature prominently in any new rebel leadership that is to emerge from a four-day conference starting Sunday in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
The U.S. said a revamped leadership could rally wider international support and help buffer against attempts by extremists among the rebels to hijack the uprising.
Syrian opposition figures have called on the U.S. and other Western supporters to provide the rebels with strategic weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles, to counter the Assad regime's military superiority and help the rebels break the battlefield stalemate. However, the U.S. has been cool to the idea. It fears that such weapons could fall into the hands of radical Islamists fighting on the rebel side who might one day use them against the U.S. and its allies.
The SNC is widely seen as ineffective and cut off from those fighting on the ground. It has been plagued by infighting and defections. Still Clinton's portrayal of the SNC leadership as out-of-touch exiles kicked up a storm of disapproval inside and outside Syria.
Salem said Clinton's remarks show the U.S. wishes to "tailor the Syrian opposition to specific demands."
The U.S is pushing for a greater role for the rebel Free Syrian Army, the main fighting force on the ground, among other groups. However, the FSA and the Syria-based National Coordination Body, made up of veteran opposition figures, appear skeptical that the disparate opposition groups can fit under one umbrella.
Faiz Amru, a Syrian army general who defected earlier this year, said any transitional government or body created abroad cannot possibly represent those dying in Syria.
"Everyone is trying to push their own agendas," he said dejectedly by phone from the Turkish Syrian border. "The big powers have hijacked the Syrian revolution."
Amru said he does not support any opposition group, saying that none of them care about fighters on the ground.
The U.S. administration responded to the criticism by saying it was not issuing dictates.
"We're not giving them a list," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. "Ultimately it's up to the Syrians themselves to make those choices. This is in no way telling them what to do."
But Clinton's remarks were seen as damaging by opposition leaders and ordinary Syrians long wary of U.S. meddling in the region. The opposition has been increasingly frustrated by what it perceives as the lack of a coherent U.S. plan to help the rebels.
Muhydin Lazikani, a London-based writer and SNC member, said Clinton had no business criticizing the SNC at a time when the Obama administration has not charted a path for Syria.
"All they try to do is blame the SNC," said Lazikani.
Mohammad Sarmini, a Turkey-based SNC spokesman, said the U.S., through this new push, is "trying to make up for its shortcomings and impotence to stop the killings and massacres in Syria."
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center was also critical of the U.S. approach.
"The U.S. does not seem to have a real end game here," he said. "Where does this lead? What happens after you have a unified opposition? It will still have to be fought out between armed groups."
The shift in the U.S. position came after months of fruitless attempts by the Obama administration and its allies to cajole the notoriously fractious SNC to broaden its base, according to two American officials.
The U.S. wants the SNC to include representatives of all Syria's diverse ethnic and religious groups as well as members of the armed opposition not affiliated with extremist groups or causes, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly.
Those potential members, including opposition figure Riad Seif, are among hundreds of opposition figures that U.S. diplomats have been impressed with in discussions during the course of the crisis, the officials said. Seif is a former reformist lawmaker who was frequently jailed even before the uprising began.
Syrian opposition leaders confirmed that Seif was among the top candidates being considered to head a transitional government. Seif, who suffers from cancer, was beaten up by security forces at a protest in October last year before he finally left the country. He could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
In addition to a greater role for the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. is also pushing for more representation of local coordinating committees and the mayors of liberated cities who are already displaying skills at local leadership and governance, the officials said.
Some have accused the fundamentalist Brotherhood of dominating the Turkey- and Qatar-backed SNC and using it as a front. Different branches of the Brotherhood have been gaining power across the Middle East in Arab Spring uprising against dictatorships — particularly in Egypt where the group now holds the presidency and dominated in parliamentary elections.
Hundreds of Syrian opposition figures are expected to take part in the Doha conference. They will aim to choose a new leadership, said George Sabra, an SNC spokesman. More than 400 delegates are to select a 40-member general secretariat, a 15-member executive bureau and a new leader.
The conference will discuss the possibility of setting up a transitional government for Syria, but it is not expected to declare the formation of that body.
Associated Press writers Mathew Lee in Washington and Bradley Klapper in Shannon, Ireland, contributed to this report.