U.S. urges new Syria opposition leaders

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BEIRUT -- The United States indicated Wednesday that it was undertaking its most aggressive attempt yet to reshape the Syrian opposition, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissing the current leadership as a bunch of out-of-touch exiles who should be replaced with a group more representative of fighters on the ground.

"There has to be representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom," Ms. Clinton told reporters during a trip to Croatia. "This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes, but have, in many instances, have not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years."

Hundreds of opposition figures are gathering in Doha, Qatar, next week to try to form such a group -- ostensibly under Arab League auspices but really pushed there by the United States. Ms. Clinton said she had been heavily involved in planning the meeting, including recommending individuals and organizations to include in any new leadership structure.

"We've made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition," Ms. Clinton said, referring to the Syrian National Council. It can participate, she added, "but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard."

Although council members are likely to have as many as one third of the seats on the new body, expected to have 35 to 50 members, Ms. Clinton's very public announcement could well be the council's death knell.

The Obama administration has been exasperated for months with the anemic leadership and constant bickering of the council, which is often far more caught up in fighting over travel delegation spots than in creating an effective transitional government. It failed to attract significant representation from minority groups, including the Alawites who dominate Syria as well as the Christians or Kurds. Its obscure academics and long-exiled activists also seem increasingly irrelevant in a civil war in which extremist jihadis are gaining more visibility.

From the beginning, the council was seen as a prime vehicle for the long-exiled Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Turkey, and Ms. Clinton said it was not inclusive enough and too accommodating of extremists.

"There needs to be an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians," she said. "And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution."

The timing of the Qatar meeting that could produce the change is interesting since the announcement is anticipated next Wednesday, a day after the U.S. presidential election, so the outcome of the attempt won't become an election issue.

Although no great shift in policy is anticipated no matter who wins the election, some analysts are expecting that the United States could become more deeply involved by supplying weapons, including antiaircraft weapons, to the opposition. Thus far, it has insisted that it was supplying only nonlethal aid, although it has been directing weapons from other states to favorite groups.

On Wednesday, the Syrian government was deploying its air force heavily against rebel strongholds in the country's north and in the Damascus suburbs, in what the opposition called a failed attempt to dislodge it from smaller towns it had captured.

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