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Fractured Syrian Opposition Eyed Warily


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Syrian opposition leaders are meeting today, trying to forge a coalition to topple the increasingly brutal dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. The talks in Doha, Qatar follow sharp criticism last month from the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. She dismissed the opposition Syrian National Council as out of touch exiles and said the group ought to be replaced with people who better represent rebels fighting on the ground. In Doha yesterday, the Syrian National Council elected a new president and he told the Associated Press that the international community should support Assad's opponents without any conditions and not link aid to reshuffling the opposition leadership. Meanwhile, thousands more refugees have fled the civil war in Syria in just the last few days. Many are in Turkey, which is where we caught up with Andrew Tabler, an expert from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says the Syrian opposition is quite fractured.

ANDREW TABLER: Those that are meeting in Doha and working things out are sort of a collection of the more established and exile-driven Syrian National Council, together with some local councils from inside the country, as well as a number of those from the established opposition within Syria. It's a divided bunch, and overall the entire initiative that gave birth to Doha was a result of the Syrian National Council's inability to agree upon almost anything as the conflict here in Syria got worst.

SIMON: Are there jihadists among the opposition?

TABLER: There are jihadists inside of Syria - not among the group meeting in Doha. They are a small part of the opposition. They certainly don't represent the majority. But what happened over time is that as the battle of the revolution inside of Syria turned from a peaceful protest movement to an armed movement, as the regime's onslaught continued for 20 months. Syrians needed Western support - specifically American support. They did not get it. There was very, if no. outreach to even talking to armed groups in the country as they proliferated over the last year. So, now we have a predominantly armed movement where they're increasingly brackish between the civilian and the armed elements. And we are now, by choice, unable to speak to the armed groups in a comprehensive and political way. And that's one of the great challenges before the Obama administration now.

SIMON: The Alawite and Christian minorities in Syria traditionally have supported President Assad. Is that still the case?

TABLER: Well, it certainly is still the case in terms of senior regime officials. In fact, we haven't had any senior Alawite officials - the sect that dominates the regime from which the Assad family hails - we haven't had anyone defect. But there is grumbling among the Alawite community itself as well as among Christians. But they haven't broken with them because they're afraid that in the interim, in a post outside Syria, that extremists will take their lives, and specifically Sunni extremists. And it's a scare tactic that so far is working and the minorities are more or less holding together.

SIMON: There were reports in the New York Times on Friday that opposition units are responsible for committing atrocities. Do you know about any of that? Is it widespread? Does it make you doubt that there are elements of the oppositions are worth of American support?

TABLER: Oh, for sure. The armed opposition has carried atrocities. They even admit it. The number of groups - numbers, you know, in terms of the effective groups, a number up to 100 - some of them are extremists. They don't deserve U.S. support. But that doesn't mean the revolution doesn't deserve U.S. support. That doesn't mean that the U.S. can't do more with groups it can work with and have abided by the rules of war. We don't have to deal with anybody in Syria, but there are those who in their hour of need are looking to the United States. If we do that, we have an ability to shape the outcome in a post-Assad Syria. If we don't, I don't know any way that we can shape what's going to occur in Syria here over the coming years.

SIMON: Do you see an opening for the United States to work toward some kind of resolution?

TABLER: Well, it depends on if the United States wants to continue to treat the symptoms of the disease or to deal with the disease itself. The symptoms of the disease are the thousands of refugees. So, we can continue to go on as is and treat the symptoms of the disease but it's not going to go away any time soon. Or we deal with the disease itself, and that is we look at the situation and determine that President Obama's decision in August of 2011 that President Assad must step aside, that more robust policy is in order. And that's what policymakers are currently trying to work out right now in Washington. We've been told to wait until after the election, and now it's after the election and everyone's watching what's going to come out of Washington.

SIMON: Well, what's a more robust policy? I mean, a more sternly worded statement? What?

TABLER: Well, I think they have run out of those actually - 20 months of them. There are two parts of this. One is an outreach to the Syrian opposition as a whole and accepting the Syrian opposition as it is and trying to deal with all those elements. That doesn't mean that you dump a bunch of weapons on militias. It's more complicated than that. And you try and build relationships with them as they're probably going to inherit the earth in Syria, or at least parts of it, as the regime gives way. Or in the meantime, given the humanitarian situation, there is the option of setting up a no-fly zone.

SIMON: Andrew Tabler, author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria," speaking from along the Turkish border with Syria. Thanks so much.

TABLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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