By: Karen Deyoung
Planning for the day after the anticipated fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has become a race against time that many proponents of a pluralistic, democratic Syria fear they are losing.
In Washington, Istanbul and elsewhere, opposition activists and their supporters are establishing databases and drafting the outlines of an interim structure to govern Syria until something more permanent can take its place..
But even those who have been working on the plans doubt they will serve as more than suggestions in a post-Assad atmosphere that they predict will be characterized at best by conflict and chaos. At worst, they see a sectarian bloodbath and a possible takeover by extremists fighting on the side of rebel military forces.
Many Syrian activists believe the United States and Europe have exacerbated the challenges by forbidding interactions with the armed opposition in the country while Assad is still in power.
“What we really need is to work with the most prominent and moderate leaders in the Free Syrian Army to make them national leaders, to create a strong organization for them under political leadership,” said Rami Nakhla, executive director of the Istanbul-based Day After organization, which is providing technical support to the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition.
Restrictions against any interaction with the armed opposition, he said, are “a big strategic mistake.”
Others say that U.S. humanitarian assistance to Syria, provided indirectly and largely invisibly through non-governmental organizations, has had only a negligible effect in the conflict and that massive reconstruction aid planned for the day after Assad’s fall will come too late to win Syrian hearts and minds.
“No one is thinking about the day after. They’re thinking about today, and whether they’ll be alive tomorrow,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch.
“Even secular-minded people who acknowledge the jihadis are a potential threat to them say they’re the only people who helped us and you didn’t help us,” said Malinowski, who returned last week from rebel-held areas of Syria. “There is not much time left to demonstrate to Syrians that the United States was with them when they needed it most.”
U.S. officials say they recognize the urgency of the situation, as rebel military forces increase their hold on Syrian territory amid escalating civilian deaths and mounting humanitarian needs. “But there are legal issues involved” in moving beyond humanitarian aid, a senior administration official said.
Providing the rebel military with the same kind of organizational and training aid being given outside Syria to the political opposition is just as illegal as handing over weapons or sending troops, U.S. officials said.
Without an international mandate from the United Nations or approval from Congress, the United States has no basis on which to aid or interact with the Syrian rebels, under the legal opinion on which the administration has based its policy.
Although the administration has said it thinks Assad must go, its range of action is limited by the fact that this country is not at war with Syria and has no legitimate claim of self-defense, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal deliberations.