WASHINGTON – The Obama administration's principles for a post-Assad Syria are clear: security, sectarian harmony, no tolerance for extremists.
But the U.S. faces a hard sell with Syria's fighters after refusing to back them militarily and watching them squabble for months over how to reshape their country the day after President Bashar Assad's regime crumbles, as expected.
With government defections on the rise and the rebels gaining advantage in Aleppo and Damascus, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton outlined her vision Tuesday of how Syria should move forward in the event of a sudden regime change.
"We have to make sure that the state institutions stay intact," Clinton told reporters in Pretoria, South Africa. "We have to think about what we can do to support a Syrian-led democratic transition that protects the rights of all Syrians. We have to figure out how to support the return of security and public safety and how to get their economy up and going."
Washington is urging a gradual approach to transition that would keep water, electricity and other public services running — and ensure that women, minorities, independents and government officials without blood on their hands get a say in Syria's future.
But after four decades of the Assad family dictatorship and 17 months of brutal repression, opposition anger runs so deep that Syrian factions dispute even the most basic elements of a post-Assad plan. These include non-retribution against minority Alawites and allowing regime technocrats to continue working for the good of the country, U.S. officials said.
No workable plan that includes power-sharing arrangements, the formation of councils or minority representation has emerged in a country that is more ethnically splintered than Iraq and holds perhaps the greatest international stakes of the Arab Spring. The rebels openly scoff at the opposition's would-be civilian leadership abroad. No single credible leader has emerged for the splintered anti-Assad movement to rally around.
"There is no one authority to take over," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said opposition figures outside Syria and U.S. officials have pushed the blueprint of a plan, but its level of acceptance among the rebel fighters on the ground "remains a mystery."
"It's likely to be the guys taking the shots at Assad that will be calling the shots after he goes," Tabler said. "And while we know they are winning, it's far from clear what they want politically — other than a Syria without Assad."
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has been leading the Obama administration's outreach efforts. He met with a divided cast of opposition figures in Cairo in last week, including some who in vain sought American endorsement of a government in exile that would exclude some political opponents.
Ford and other officials are trying to forge greater cohesion among the opposition ranks but are being hampered by internal rivalries and communications challenges with those on the front lines of Syria's civil war, U.S. officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak about sensitive diplomacy.
Clinton said she'd be traveling to Istanbul later this week to advance the planning at a time when the opposition "is becoming increasingly coordinated and effective." The rebels have captured Assad regime tanks and hold territory from Aleppo to the Turkish border.
"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," Clinton said.
"We can begin talking about planning for what happens next: the day after the regime does fall," Clinton said. "I am not going to put a timeline on it. I can't possibly predict it. But I know it's going to happen, as do most observers around the world."
Key to any transition will be maintaining order and keeping out potential spoilers sponsored by Assad allies like Iran, or even extremists in the ranks of the rebel forces. U.S. officials say they believe jihadists and al-Qaida-linked fighters make up only a small percentage of the resistance but are concerned that they could try to wield influence if a power vacuum develops.
The dangers of a failed state in a religiously divided society are all too apparent in Iraq, where the collapse of the region's other Baathist regime unleashed a cycle of vendetta killings and a bloody struggle for power. More than 100,000 American troops were unable to enforce calm.
The diversity of Syrian society, which includes Sunnis, Christians, Druse, Kurds and Assad's Alawite community, makes the possibility of a post-Assad power struggle all the more likely. Already, the conflict has seen Alawite gunmen participating in mass killings of Sunni civilians, as well as tit-for-tat slayings of Alawites by Sunnis.
"We have to make sure that we send very clear expectations about avoiding sectarian warfare," Clinton said. "Those who are attempting to exploit the misery of the Syrian people, either by sending in proxies or sending in terrorist fighters, must recognize that that will not be tolerated first and foremost by the Syrian people."
The U.S. message, however, is hindered by the limited leverage it holds with an armed opposition to whom it provided only limited assistance throughout the civil war. Despite calls for greater support, Washington has steadfastly refused to entertain the idea of airstrikes, enforcing no-fly zones or providing weapons to the rebels.
"Our influence will be limited, but I'm not sure that arming the rebels would change that necessarily," said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department specialist on the Mideast. "Right now, their interests are to get rid of Assad. But who is to say that we'll share the same goals afterward? And who is to say that those who bring Assad down will wield power afterward?"
The situation is starkly different from the one in Libya, where the United States and its NATO allies bombed Moammar Gadhafi's forces and defense installations until he and his regime were brought down. Then, too, the U.S. officially backed the Transitional National Council as the representative of the Libyan people — conferring legitimacy on specific opposition leaders and wielding influence with them as they gained control over the country.
In Syria, no such developments have occurred. Washington may still have significant influence through allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey that have provided the rebels with more direct assistance — making Clinton's discussions Saturday in Istanbul all the more timely.