* U.S. seeks to build components for post-Assad government
* Officials expect step toward recognition, but no arms yet
* U.S. repeats warnings against chemical weapons use
By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, Dec 6 The United States is racing to
finalize elements of its Syria strategy, planning new steps to
shape and strengthen the still-fragmented opposition as signs
build that the country is nearing a tipping point in the
20-month rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
Blocked at the United Nations by Russia and China, and wary
of the growing influence of radical Islamists in the Syrian
revolt, the Obama administration has forced a reorganization of
the Syrian opposition into a new, broad coalition. It hopes the
new coalition can secure stability after what U.S. officials
regard as the inevitable collapse of the Assad government.
But with events moving quickly on the battlefield and world
leaders warning Assad against resorting to his stockpile of
chemical weapons as a last-ditch tactic, diplomatic analysts say
Syria's crisis threatens to spin out of control before the
U.S.-backed transition plan is in place.
"The horizon of the regime is quite a bit shorter than we
imagined even three months ago, and I don't think the
development of the opposition has kept pace," said Steven
Heydemann, a Syria specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
To accelerate the planning, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton will gather with allies and opposition representatives
in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh next week. She is expected to
announce that the United States recognizes the new coalition as
"the legitimate representative" of the Syrian people - a
symbolic endorsement of the group Washington hopes can mature
into a transitional government.
The United States is also expected to offer more non-lethal
aid to the rebels, while placing one of the most radical
fighting groups, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, on its
blacklist of terrorist organizations. The action is meant to
draw a clear line against the most extreme elements of the
Islamist resistance, U.S. officials say.
But U.S. arms supplies for opposition fighters remain off
the table for now - reflecting continued U.S. reluctance to
intervene directly in the conflict even as allies such as Qatar
and Saudi Arabia step up their own weapons shipments.
BATTLES AND WARNINGS
The U.S. scramble on Syria comes as rebels, who already
control swaths of the country, intensify their push on Damascus,
closing the highway to the capital's airport and battling
government troops in the suburbs of what increasingly is a city
The rebel campaign has coincided with a series of warnings
from world leaders to Assad not to use chemical weapons - a step
U.S. President Barack Obama said would be a "tragic mistake"
that would invite unspecified consequences.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday repeated
those warnings and said the United States had reason to believe
Damascus was contemplating chemical warfare. Syria has rejected
the warnings as "a pretext for intervention" by outsiders.
"The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that
this is being considered," Panetta said.
NATO also decided this week to send U.S., German and Dutch
batteries of Patriot anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey's border
with Syria, meaning hundreds of American and European troops
will deploy to the frontier for the first time.
But U.S. officials caution that Washington still sees no
military solution to the conflict in Syria, a country crosscut
by religious and sectarian divisions. Mapping out a durable
political transition, they say, is the only way to avert a
potentially larger catastrophe in the heart of the Middle East.
"The goal is not to push Assad out, the goal is to get a
different kind of government in Syria, one that promotes
stability and security. The fall of Bashar is just Act One,"
said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Clinton met Foreign Sergei Lavrov of Russia in Dublin on
Thursday, raising hopes that Moscow might reconsider its support
for Assad, which has seen Russia, joined by China, veto three
U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring his
government to halt the violence.
International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, also at the meeting,
emerged saying they had agreed to seek a "creative" solution to
the Syrian crisis. But he gave no specific indications that the
diplomatic deadlock had been broken..
PROFESSIONALIZING THE OPPOSITION
The Marrakesh "Friends of Syria" meeting follows intense
U.S. efforts to professionalize Syria's opposition after Clinton
in October called for a new structure to replace the Syrian
National Council, a group of largely expatriate Syrians with
little political traction inside the country.
The new coalition was formed, and U.S. officials have met
with some of its members, particularly on economic and
humanitarian issues as they try to improve governance and
service delivery in areas of Syria already under rebel control.
"At some point, it becomes more important whether they can
pick up the garbage than whether they can shoot down a
helicopter," said Daniel Serwer, a professor of conflict
management at Johns Hopkins University.
Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf countries have already
endorsed the coalition despite having sometimes different ideas
about what a post-Assad Syria should look like.
Qatar in particular, along with being an important weapons
supplier for rebel forces, is seen to be pushing for a stronger
Islamist political role in the country - a challenge to U.S.
officials who hope to craft a more inclusive governing
A U.S. move to upgrade its recognition of the coalition may
strengthen its leverage but is unlikely to resolve deeper
questions over whether the nascent opposition is really ready to
take the reins in Syria.