Despite this move being long overdue, it is not a good sign that the administration understands the Islamist dynamic in the Syrian opposition. This means that any attempt to bring together members of the opposition will almost certainly result in an even more dangerous coalition that would be hazardous to American interests.
Haaretz identified the problem last month:
But the arguments over what the character of Syria will be after Assad's fall are somewhat premature. With the West finding it hard to help the rebels decide the military campaign, with the militias in Syria forced to turn to organized crime organizations and arm procurers in order to buy assault rifles at thousands of dollars per rifle and two bucks per bullet, and with disagreements among the militias preventing the establishment of a joint command center, it is hard to take seriously talks about a united government-in-exile and a timetable for its establishment.
Still, like Egypt during the revolution, the largest, most organized group in the Syrian opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood. They control about one-quarter of the 310 members of the Syrian National Council (the largest Syrian opposition group working in exile. ) Its deputy president is Mohamad Faruq Tayfur, a senior Muslim Brotherhood representative. Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, formerly the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, is also a senior member of the SNC. The two are in charge of the council's logistics and assistance division, and they control a hefty portion of its budget. Within Syria, they maintain a network of civilian services and have taken control of the civilian defense authority, turning it into a paramilitary arm of the organization. Until recently, this unofficial body was controlled by a religious military outfit called the Syrian Hawks, which decided to disassociate from the authority after the Muslim Brotherhood assumed control of it.
Several prominent members of the SNC resigned last March citing domination of the SNC by the Muslim Brotherhood:
The main Syrian exile opposition group suffered a serious fracture on Wednesday as several prominent members resigned, calling the group autocratic, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and powerless to help Syrian rebels as government forces, having flushed insurgent strongholds in the north, swept into the rebellious southern city of Dara'a.
So who will the US back in this new opposition group?
The United States has no direct power to anoint the would-be new leaders of Syria, but U.S. backing will be essential for any hopefuls seeking outside financial, diplomatic or possible military assistance. The United States is supporting new opposition leaders who will attend a strategy session in Qatar next week, Clinton said.
Clinton and other U.S. officials are fed up with infighting among the SNC leaders seeking recognition as a shadow government and have become convinced that the group does not represent the interests of all ethnic and religious groups in Syria. It also has little legitimacy among on-the-ground activists and fighters, and has done little to stem the infiltration of Islamist extremists into the opposition forces.
Clinton had some of her strongest words to date about the risk that the uprising against Assad could be overtaken by militants who do not seek a democratic replacement.
"We also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution," Clinton said. "There are disturbing reports of extremists going into Syria and attempting to take over what has been a legitimate revolution against an oppressive regime for their own purposes."
Clinton's problem is that the only organized groups who speak about democracy in a post-Assad Syria are Islamist groups. They may, as President Morsi has done in Egypt, accept a limited number of secularists, women, and Christians to fool the west into believing they represent the whole of the opposition. But the reality is that the Brotherhood will run things pretty much as if they weren't there.
Rather than a step forward, this is a retreat. Clinton will soon be faced with the reality that the Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest political force in Syria. Whether we hand over the country to them as we did in Egypt is a possibility that a President Romney will have to take into account immediately upon taking office.