The government of President Bashar al-Assad is firing tank shells and rockets at unarmed civilians. Thousands of people are dying. The images are horrific. Indignation mounts around the world.

Meanwhile, the main Syrian opposition group is still trying to get a proper office in Washington.

Make no mistake, there are plenty of Syrians arguing the opposition’s case in the United States — including many illustrious activists with long records of agitation against Bashar. They include people like long-time dissident Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies.

But the Syrian National Council, the Syrian opposition group formed in August, still doesn’t have a formal representative office in the American capital. It’s awaiting permission from the Department of Justice, which registers all foreign entities that intend to lobby the US government. When SNC members come to town for discussions with US officials, they often use Ziadeh’s office as a base. (He is also a member of the SNC and often functions as its de facto spokesman in the United States.)

Part of the problem, of course, is the much-publicised dysfunction of the SNC itself. Many of its leaders are long-time exiles who are often criticised for indulging in impotent feuding in places like Paris and Istanbul while the folks back home confront the full force of Assad’s rage. It’s also notably fractious, reflecting, to some extent, the diversity of a country that boasts myriad regional and sectarian differences. Secular nationalists are at odds with members of the Muslim Brotherhood (who are thought to dominate the SNC, even though they tend to stay out of the limelight).

Perhaps this will change. The SNC did get a boost at recent Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis, which brought the opposition together with emissaries from some 60 countries. The diplomats recognised the SNC as “a legitimate representative” of the Syrian people — a formula that still fell short of acknowledging the SNC as a full-fledged government in exile (not that anyone in the group was complaining).

It’s a move that inspires hope, but it has failed to close the SNC’s credibility gap. A few days after Tunis, some of the SNC’s most prominent members announced they were forming something called the “Syrian Patriotic Group.” Though they’re staying within the SNC (at least for the moment), their aim is clearly to goad their colleagues into taking up a more decisive stance in support of the fight against Assad.

If they are to succeed, getting Washington on board will be key. Lately there has been lots of hopeful talk about creating a safe haven on the border with Turkey. But this is unlikely to happen unless the Obama administration gives its OK. (Some Arab countries have reportedly already started funnelling weapons to the Free Syrian Army, the armed opposition wing made up of defectors from Assad’s military, and this is a process that will probably continue regardless of the White House position. But it’s not clear what effect this will have unless the rebels can take delivery of tanks and artillery to counter Assad’s heavy weapons.)

So far nothing like that appears to be in the offing. “Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now,” President Obama said earlier this month. “He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately.” But he showed little inclination to go farther.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did him one better. She worried aloud that weapons sent to the Syrian opposition could find their way to al Qaeda, and bemoaned the lack of “an opposition that is actually viable.” SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun’s recent statement that the group is prepared to collaborate with Hezbollah if need be probably won’t assuage such fears.

Without a proper SNC presence in Washington, the burden of the opposition effort to shape policy has fallen on the shoulders of a group called the Syrian American Council, formed in 2005 to promote the development of democracy back in the homeland. The SAC started by trying to initiate a dialogue with the Baathist regime in Damascus. Last year, when Assad commanded his troops to open fire on peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Syrian cities, the SAC switched its emphasis to supporting the opposition. Mahmoud Khattab, director of the SAC, says that his group has had many talks with US officials in recent weeks. Lately the SAC has been pleading above all for Washington’s support for the safe haven idea. So is anyone listening? “So far I haven’t heard a clear plan from the US about what they will do,” says Khattab. “They keep talking about sanctions and peaceful solution. But the situation has been going on for 11 months now.”

The Syrian opposition in the US ought to have an easy job. Bashar has long been one of Washington’s sworn enemies. Khattab, who notes that he and the SNC liaise on a regular basis, claims that their message is finding a warm reception in Congress (though it isn’t always entirely apparent that this is the case).

There are deeper forces at work. The United States is understandably hesitant to intervene directly in Syria. The country is a tangle of sectarian and ethnic complexities that sits astride just about every strategic dilemma in the Middle East. The Baathist regime is a sworn enemy of Israel and a close friend of Iran. Assad’s power base among the heterodox Alawite minority pits him against an increasingly bitter Sunni majority. Civil war in Syria could easily spark a regional conflagration, spilling over into neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon, or Jordan.

“I’m a fan of the US,” says Syria expert Randa Slim. “I think they’re playing it exactly right.” She says that the Obama administration should beware getting too deeply involved. Most people in the region are already deeply suspicious of US motives. The job of the Americans, she says, should be to marshal an international consensus, nudging the Europeans and others to lend more support to the opposition even while pressing it to become more inclusive and representative. “Leading from behind fits perfectly for a number of reasons,” says Slim. Judging by their actions so far, it would seem that Clinton and Obama share this stance.

But didn’t the US support military action against Colonel Gaddafi? Sure. But Libya is relatively isolated, its population small. The National Transitional Council, the main opposition group, established itself just two months after the uprising against Gaddafi began, and boasted a relatively coherent leadership. Fighters loyal to the NTC managed to establish a defensible base area, in the eastern city Benghazi, early in the conflict. All this made it relatively easy for Washington to provide military support.

The situation in and around Syria bears little resemblance to this scenario. What’s more, a comprehensive plan to aid the rebels depends on the good graces of Syria’s neighbours. The most important of them is Turkey, whose long border with Syria is closest to many of the areas now in revolt. But so far Ankara has shown little inclination to get drawn into a Syrian conflict.

In case anyone forgets, another member of Khattab’s group, a young doctor named Amer Sayed, reminds us what’s at stake. Sayed arrived in the United States just a few weeks ago from his hometown of Idlib, where he remains in touch with family members who must confront not only snipers and artillery bombardment but also have to cope with shortages of diesel fuel, electricity, and water as they struggle to survive a harsh winter.

Supplies have been cut by the government to punish the rebels — whether they are men, women, children, or the elderly. Sayed describes operating on victims of the crackdown in a dirty apartment without sanitised medical instruments, or being humiliated by government thugs who force shivering people to sing pro-Assad anthems in return for fuel rations. The death toll, in Idlib and elsewhere, continues to mount.

By now such things should not really count as news. The question is whether the international community can be moved to effective action, whatever form that may take. If the state of play in Washington right now is any indication, though, the prospects for Syria’s opposition are not good.                    –Foreign Policy