A famous American coloring shampoo advertisement years ago used the effective slogan, referring to whether or not the woman in the ad dyed her hair, “Does she or doesn’t she?” The same question can be asked today about Hilary Clinton’s attitude to the Syrian opposition and the uprising to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s regime. Does she or doesn’t she truly support the uprising? To judge by her comments a few days ago that the U.S. will no longer view the Syrian National Council as the leading opposition group and instead wants to help shape a new coalition of groups to finish the job of removing Assad from power, the truth is that we really do not know the answer to that question. Now the U.S. is working with Qatar and the Arab League to hold a gathering in Doha this week to shape a new coalition of opposition groups that more credibly represents “those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom ... the Syrian National Council can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition ... the opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard.”
The irony of this is that the points Clinton makes are very sensible. The Syrian opposition must be led by credible people on the ground who have legitimacy and impact on the ground. The problem with her statement is that it creates a political reality that is a lose-lose situation for all concerned, because it hinders both the U.S.’s own standing in the region and the efficacy of the opposition groups it says it supports.
The U.S. seems to deal with the Syrian opposition like a consumer shopping for a car or a dress – it shops around the available markets because it is not sure of what it wants to buy, looks favorably upon one item it likes at first, and then changes its mind as it looks around to find the product that best matches its specifications. The U.S. seems to support freedom, dignity and democracy around the world in a very American-specific manner, not as a consistent or principled policy.
Three specific problems emerge from this new American attitude to the Syrian opposition. The first is about the United States itself. The U.S. appears increasingly unsure about how it wants to respond to the Syrian uprising, and having changed its mind this week it will be seen by most people as an unreliable partner that can change its mind again and again. If it wants, correctly, to support opposition groups on the ground, why did it not do this from the start? It could have engaged with the SNC and assisted other groups inside Syria through the available entry points into Syria. Or, it could simply quietly provide more assistance to other groups than the SNC, without making a public spectacle of its erratic behavior.
The second problem is that any Syrian or Arab groups that the U.S. now publicly supports will be tainted as hand-picked agents of Washington, a status that is usually the kiss of death for most individuals or organizations in the Arab world, where public opinion still sees the U.S. and Israel as the two most serious threats to the Arab security. The Assad regime, Russia and many others will have a field day with any new opposition group coalition that emerges from the Qatar gathering, branding it as an American – and American-Israeli – proxy that is created and manipulated by Washington.
The third problem is that this smacks of yet another dimension of a neocolonial mindset and enterprise that still plagues the Middle East, when Western capitals play a leading role in defining which groups have legitimacy in the Arab world and which ones are left out of the picture. This contradicts an underlying theme of the Arab uprisings that continue to reverberate around the region, which is the renewed empowerment and agency of the Arab citizenry, and the firm anchorage of legitimacy in the hands of that citizenry, rather than in the hands of foreign powers and their hand-picked Arab elites.
The double irony of this situation for the U.S. and others who worry that Islamists and militant Salafists are playing a bigger role in the resistance to Assad’s regime is that this move is likely to strengthen, rather than weaken, the Islamists’ role in the national rebellion, because Islamists will always have an advantage over American-supported groups Arab public opinion.
Nineteen months after the uprising began in Deraa, the United States and many other Western governments remain unsure and confused about how to respond to uprisings in the Arab world. Washington showed this again this week with its amateurish approach to dealing with the Syrian opposition.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @RamiKhouri.