A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive diplomacy on Syria, told reporters in New York that the opposition coalition had made progress in recent months by agreeing to participate in a Geneva peace summit, forming an interim government and expanding membership to include more members of the Kurdish minority.
The official acknowledged, however, that there are still major "credibility issues" for the opposition and that opposition leaders would have to work harder to earn influence inside of Syria. That's made more difficult now, the official said, because “there's a real firefight" going on between al Qaida-linked fighters and rebels loyal to the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council.
The official described the violence as "the hardest fighting we've ever seen" as it spreads across a huge swath of rebel held territory.
In a further blow to the so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels, several of the major Islamist fighting groups issued a statement Tuesday announcing a new Islamist "alliance" that would challenge the Syrian Opposition Coalition for authority, according to Arabic-language news reports and a copy of the purported document that quickly went viral on Syria social media forums.
Qatar’s monarch, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, took a subtle dig at the U.S. focus on Syria’s chemical arsenal in his speech Tuesday before the assembly. He said Syrians hadn’t risen up to place chemical weapons under international supervision but for the broader goal of “getting rid of despotism and corruption and to end the injustice.”
But even Qatar, a main financier of the Syrian opposition and rebel movement, urged the anti-Assad forces to get their acts together.
“I take this opportunity to call upon our Syrian brothers to unify their ranks for entering a transition period that leads to establishing a governing system that guarantees freedom and dignity for all Syrians without discrimination on the grounds of gender, nationality, sect or creed,” Thani said. He added that so many lives hadn’t been sacrificed only to exchange Assad’s authoritarian rule for “chaos or another kind of despotism.”
While speaking sternly on what the U.S. says is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Obama also sounded more conciliatory notes, supporting the Iranians’ right to access nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and saying he was encouraged by the gestures of newly elected President Hasan Rouhani, who also addressed the assembly Tuesday.
“I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight; the suspicion runs too deep,” Obama said. “But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road towards a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Obama also addressed other restive spots in the region. He chided Egypt’s military, which ousted the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, for practices such as reinstating sweeping emergency laws that aren’t in line with restoring democracy. He pointedly said that the U.S. was withholding some military aid pending signs that Egypt was returning to the path of an “inclusive” democratic state.
“Our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point: The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests,” Obama said, adding that the U.S. would continue to support human rights and oppose the use of violence to suppress dissent.