High-ranking members of the Syrian opposition movement have recently been trained in Berlin on how to establish a democratic system in the event that President Bashar Assad falls from power, German diplomatic sources have confirmed.
Some 40 Syrians underwent training, including generals who have deserted Assad, economists and lawyers living in exile. The group includes members of various ethnic groups and religions, as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Syria.
The diplomatic sources stressed that the German government was not directly involved in the meetings, which were held under conditions of secrecy, but said it was being kept informed and was providing logistical support.
"It is the declared policy of (Foreign Minister Guido) Westerwelle to boost cohesion within the Syrian opposition and to contribute to making the Syrian opposition forces more professional," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Berlin.
The meetings included a visit to the authority that administers the files of the notorious Stasi, the defunct East German security organization.
The driving force behind the project, entitled "The Day Thereafter: support for a democratic transition in Syria," is the U.S. Institute for Peace. Funders included the U.S. State Department, the Swiss Foreign Ministry and Dutch and Norwegian non-governmental organizations.
According to USIP project leader Steven Heydemann, opposition leaders were being prepared for the immediate aftermath of a regime collapse in Syria, with the aim of averting economic chaos and ensuring public order.
The organizers stressed that the plans being laid in Berlin were not aimed at changing the government in Damascus. As Heydemann wrote in his blog for the U.S. journal Foreign Policy, the project was about "the day after," while others were working on "the day before."
Regime collapse was one issue, while talks about transitional arrangements were another, Heydemann said, adding that it would be "irresponsible" not to prepare for a transition.
Heydemann said that the discussions to date had been about reforms to the justice system, among other things, along with the role of the armed opposition in the post- Assad era.
The next stage would be establishing a network of officials for the transitional period, with consideration being given to members of the old regime who could play a role in a new Syria.
Over the weeks ahead, the group intends to present recommendations for a transformation concept that would be available for a possible transitional government.
Despite the military successes of the Free Syrian Army, the political opposition is widely regarded as divided and disorganized. The Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, set up last October as an opposition umbrella organization, claims to represent 60 percent of the regime's opponents.
They include the Muslim Brotherhood, along with Christian and Kurdish minorities. Most SNC members are exiles, like the chairman, Abdelbasit Seida, a Kurd who lives in Sweden. His predecessor, Paris-based Burhan Ghaliun, stood down following internal controversy.
Many experts see the SNC as largely irrelevant, even though it was recently recognized by the Friends of Syria group of nations.
The National Coordination Committee for democratic change has a stronger base within the country. And Nofal Dawalibi, son of a former Syrian prime minister, has indicated that he intends to set up a transitional government in exile.