Less than one month after its formation, and at an emergency meeting in Cairo on Monday, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces — the latest and broadest front of political opposition groups — said it will choose a prime minister to lead the transitional government that will oversee relief aid and foreign relations.
The transitional government will also coordinate with armed opposition groups and administer liberated regions until the Bashar Al-Assad regime is overthrown.
The political initiative came in response to many calls by Western and Arab states to form a transitional government to include all opposition groups and that would be able to administer the country during the transitional phase. More importantly, it would be ready to take power from President Al-Assad once the revolution is successful and his regime is toppled.
The Syrian opposition is divided into political and military groups that until recently operated separately. The two camps neither competed nor coordinated. This changed after the newest and broadest National Coalition was formed and gave priority to uniting military forces under a joint command and coordinating with it.
Days before the transitional prime minister was named, and in the presence of security officials from the US, Britain, France, Germany, the Gulf, Jordan and Turkey, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and military councils, seeking to overthrow the regime through force, chose a joint command headed by Brigadier Salim Idris. The joint command, comprising of 30 military and civilian members, is an initiative supported by the West and some Arab states to organise the ranks of the armed opposition. Western countries and local forces welcomed uniting and coordinating the ranks of the armed opposition, and viewed military councils as a wing of the National Coalition.
Thus, for the first time since the start of the revolution 21 months ago, a united political and military entity was created. Meanwhile, the military wing will work on isolating all Jihadist and Salafi elements that refuse to operate under its command and structure.
According to the hierarchy of the National Coalition, any members of the government can be dismissed individually or as a group. Meanwhile, the prime minister will be accountable to the coalition.
Cabinet members must meet several criteria, including being Syrian nationals, participating in the revolution, and having expertise (ie technocrats). More importantly, they can never have been a leading figure in Al-Assad regime or committed crimes against the people or unlawfully seized funds.
By-laws also outline the duties and mandate of the government, namely “the overthrow of the incumbent regime and no dialogue or negotiations with the regime. The cabinet will facilitate the operation of different sectors on Syrian affairs and guarantee the unity and sovereignty of all Syrian territories, and uphold the rule of law. The government will also implement and facilitate foreign policy, regulate relations with all countries, regional and international bodies, and represent the people of Syria in these interactions.” It will also oversee “the administration of liberated regions and recovering the funds of the Syrian people”.
Moaz Al-Khatib, president of the National Coalition, is optimistic about the coming phase. “We will ask the members of the transitional government to submit their work plans so they are approved,” Al-Khatib told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The Marrakesh conference will crown international political and economic support for the Syrian revolution.”
Al-Khatib added that, “one priority of this government is providing the basic needs of Syrians in terms of fuel, flour, medical care, and improving the condition of refugees.”
The move to form a transitional government and unite the ranks of the armed opposition came days before the Friends of Syria conference in Morocco that brings together dozens of countries that pledged to support the opposition in its battle to overthrow the Syrian regime. It is an opportunity for these countries to elevate their recognition of the Syrian opposition and begin practical steps to supply both the political and armed opposition with support and assistance.
The problem, however, is that this government will most likely operate outside Syria since there are no completely liberated zones that are safe for a cabinet and administration to operate. This will be a huge obstacle because it will be physically distant from its partners and revolution on the ground. Another key criticism is that members of the transitional government cannot be opposition forces who belong to the coalition.
The strategy of the transitional government is yet unclear and analysts are divided. There are those who believe it will be turning point for the West and the US to begin sending direct and indirect military support to the Syrian opposition, since it will be the legitimate representative that can even ask for foreign military intervention to end the Syrian crisis. Others believe, however, that the transitional government will be a vehicle for a negotiated political solution that the West will impose on it after a reasonable interim stage.
Fawwaz Tallu, an opposition figure, objected that the opposition has succumbed to international demands for a “political transition of power” and ignored the reality on the ground and the needs of the armed conflict there.
“The world, led by the US, is looking for a partner outside Syria to sanction the political transition of power and this partner is the transitional government with a broad mandate,” Tallu explained to the Weekly.
“[The world] has given the regime one opportunity after another to thwart or weaken the revolution, and refused to intervene because it does not care about the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure and economy, or impoverishing Syrians for decades to come. This prepares revolutionaries to accept this ‘political transition of power’ and causes the next regime to beg for assistance — which the world community will manipulate to control the country, its foreign and domestic policies.”
Defining the concept of “political transition of power” which he believes will be the strategy of the transitional government, Tallu said: “it means launching talks with new leaders within the Syrian regime after the departure of Assad, who will likely quietly retire inside or outside Syria. These talks will be followed by a transitional phase that will last several years, in which the regime will be a strong partner and remain in control of two key institutions, the army and security apparatus. These will be reformed instead of dismantled under the pretext of protecting state institutions and preventing mayhem. This will effectively mean that the Alawite minority will remain in control of the country and its key institutions, and the Sunni majority that carried out the revolution will be toothless.”
He continued: “the world community determined that this government will be the party to negotiate with the regime without the Assads in power, and the entity that will ask for international peacekeeping forces in the last hours of the incumbent regime under the pretext of protecting the country from mayhem and the Alawite minority from revenge attacks.
“The country will be put under international trusteeship and partitioned into minority zones such as for Alawites or any other, wherever they may be. This is the prelude to implementing the ‘political transition of power’ in unfair talks between a victor that paid a very high price for victory, and a loser who committed heinous crimes to thwart the revolution while the world looked the other way. If these negotiations take place, the world community will make demands to share the rewards of a very costly victory.”
Syrians are divided about the priorities of the transitional government. Some want it to focus on arming the revolution by all means and prepare for decisive steps to overthrow the regime, while others hesitate in supporting it out of fear that its mandate is too broad. They do not want it to have the power to take any sovereign or strategic decisions, preferring they remain in the hands of a governing council of the political opposition. This is out of concern that the transitional government will negotiate with the regime or its remnants, or take controversial strategic political, military or constitutional decisions after the regime falls. It would also block it from making any requests for foreign forces or intervention by foreign military ground troops.
The general outline of the coalition and transitional government strategy indicates that the goal is to build a democratic plural state with a rotation of power through force, or imposing an international solution that forces Al-Assad to surrender power to it. So far, however, there are no clear answers to many questions. How will arming occur? Who will provide funds and weapons? What commitments will be made to them? What is the cabinet’s position regarding foreign military intervention? How will the problem of Russia supporting the regime be resolved? What if revolutionaries fail to definitively tip the military balance of power?
“The greater part of the opposition has relied on experimenting with political practices,” Hazem Nahar, an opposition political thinker, told the Weekly. “This is clear in various slogans that emerge without much thought or how realistic they are or the likelihood of achieving them.” Although Nahar believes the regime “will sooner or later” fall, forming this government “requires sure signs that the regime is tipping”, including the creation of safe zones for the government to operate from, and a clear agenda. Also, inviting figures inside Syria to be part of this.
He hoped that the opposition “has chosen well the suitable political moment to form this government so it is not just a leap into the air or another burden for the Syrian revolutionaries”.
The National Coalition asserts that the cabinet is a serious attempt by Syrians to elevate international recognition, and that its strategy benefits the majority of Syrians and their revolution while not ignoring minorities. This strategy will be embedded in direct practical policies and not just ideas on paper, it says.