In a hastily arranged trip to Turkey this weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to meet with Syrian opposition figures beyond the exile leaders who have been the public political face of the insurgency, a senior administration official said.
“Now that we’ve turned away from the United Nations, and there’s a lot going on” inside Syria, Clinton wants to talk to “activists on the ground,” said the official.
In remarks Tuesday during a visit to South Africa, Clinton did not address long-standing demands by rebel fighters for U.S. military help. Instead, she said that “the intensity of the fighting in Aleppo, the defections, really point out how imperative it is that we come together and work toward a good transition plan.”
On Monday, Syrian Prime Minister Riyad al-Hijab resigned his post and fled to Jordan, part of a wave of defections that have depleted Assad’s ranks.
Despite the defections and rebel gains, a second U.S. official involved in the discussions said the administration remains unsure of the identities and motives of many opposition figures inside Syria. The official also said there are continuing changes in intelligence on which groups are in control of particular villages and districts inside Syria.
The official and others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
“It’s not as though there’s a government in waiting or some secret commander somewhere,” the administration official in Washington said.
While Clinton does not plan to meet with representatives of the Free Syrian Army, the primary rebel military organization, her stop in Turkey is designed to give her more visibility into opposition figures directly involved inside Syria. She will also talk with Turkish officials who are more directly involved with the opposition movement.
Clinton’s decision to stop in Turkey on Saturday at the end of an unrelated Africa trip also reflects Turkey’s concern about the potential for a long civil war at its doorstep and the problems created by the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees streaming across its border.
The Turks “don’t know what they want,” said Henri Barkey of Lehigh University. “We don’t have a clear policy. Why do we expect them to have a clear policy?” The next step is “military activity,” he said, “and they don’t want to do it. Even though they are very much against Assad, there’s no support for that in Turkey.”
Discussions are ongoing among the administration, its allies and the opposition about whether it is feasible, or even desirable, to try to protect rebel gains around the Syrian city of Aleppo and the newly opened corridor between it and the Turkish border.