The Obama administration has invited the head of the newly recognised Syrian rebel coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, to Washington as the US attempts to build a sympathetic administration to slot into place and keep hostile Islamist forces at bay when President Bashar al-Assad falls.
The invitation to Khatib came at a meeting in Morocco of western and Arab nations backing the Syrian uprising at which the US gave formal recognition to the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people".
The US move has been criticised as belated and insufficient, in part because of Washington's hesitation to supply weapons to the coalition while more radical groups in Syria, including an al-Qaida affiliate declared a terrorist organisation by Washington on Tuesday, are evidently armed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
"It might be one of the last moments in which the US can positively affect the situation on the ground," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, who was in the room at the meeting in Marrakech on Wednesday.
"There is some resentment from the rebels. There's still a belief that the US is pursuing a low maintenance policy. It may well be too little too late. The situation on the ground is more and more complex. There's fragmentation. And there is a great danger that the situation can completely slip out of control and take on a dynamic which none of this can positively effect. And in this case many could point to the relatively sanguine role the US has taken."
Shaikh said the US strategy is to build up the National Coalition as a credible administration ready to take over the government when Assad falls.
"They seem to be establishing some offices on the ground, working with the local councils. Also, it presents an alternative address if the regime was to fall tomorrow, even if it's not a very well formed one at this point," he said.
"Whether it's able to stop the fighting dynamics on the ground, we'll have to wait and see."
Robert Danin, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the US is right to be cautious, and that it is counting on any post-Assad regime being open to influence because it will require American assistance.
"It's not too little too late. It's little, but this is going to be a long, drawn-out saga. The regime is not about to fall tomorrow. It's obviously on the ropes but there's still time to regain influence here," he said. "There's going to be a day after when Syria will have tremendous needs. The argument is that by getting in later in the game with the opposition we have forfeited a certain degree of goodwill. That's probably true, but hard to measure.
"Here's the real challenge: coming up with a shared vision for a post-Assad Syria. That's a long road and they're going to need help. They're going to need financial help, they're going to need technical help. There'll be tremendous opportunities there for the United States to assist."
But Marina Ottaway, who specialises in the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Washington's emphasis on support for a political coalition is mistaken.
"The Syrians know the action is inside the country and the US has been looking at the groups outside. No fighting group is really represented in the coalition. What the US is doing is creating this artificial organisation that I think is destined not to have much of an impact after Assad goes," she said.
"I have been watching liberation movements and armed groups and insurrections for 30 years and I cannot think of a situation where a government in exile in the end prevailed over the fighters inside the country. It would be extraordinary if they succeeded."
Khatib flagged up his concern at American attempts to separate the National Coalition from some of those doing the fighting after the US designated one of the rebel groups, the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate and a terrorist organisation on Tuesday.
The decision to consider a party that is fighting the regime as a terrorist party needs to be reviewed," Khatib told the meeting in Morocco. "We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and their political and ideological vision. But we affirm that all the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical criminal regime."
The US state department said the designation of the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation was intended to "strengthen the legitimate opposition".
"We are trying to make the point that those fighting in Syria's name ought to be doing so in a manner that reflects the Syria that they want to have, not reflecting a terrorist or al-Qaida shaped future," said the department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
But Shaikh said Khatib feels undermined by the American move because the al-Nusra Front has played an important part in some of the most intense fighting, such as around Aleppo, and it is popular with some Syrians.
"It kind of puts him and the coalition on the spot. They're trying to build their own bona fides with the people on the ground, and it seems as if the al-Nusra Front does enjoy some support on the ground," he said. "There was a genuine disagreement on this but I guess they'll agree to continue to disagree on this."
What the US and its western allies are not offering at the moment is weapons, even though the declaration at the meeting agreed on "the legitimate need of the Syrian people to defend itself against the violent and brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad".
"For now we have decided not to move on this," said the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in Morocco. "We shall see in the coming months."
Shaikh said it is possible that the Gulf states will step up weapons shipments and that Europeans will join them before too long. Danin said the US has one eye on what happened in Libya.
"The preferred American outcome all along would have been a military coup. That would have removed Bashar and his top men and would have provided maybe a pathway towards a more inclusive Syria," he said.
"It's clear that one of the biggest hesitations about going in is what you inherit and what we would be responsible for the day after. We see in Libya the dangers of going in, toppling a dictator and then not taking full responsibility for the day after. We're seeing the ramifications in Mali and the spread of weapons from Libya."
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