MARRAKECH, Morocco: The head of the Syrian National Council, Christian Georges Sabra, says there can be no interim government until Assad leaves. Speaking to The Daily Star hours after the Friends of Syria group followed the U.S. in recognizing the Syrian National Coalition (which absorbed the former SNC last month) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people at a meeting in Marrakech, Sabra clarified the new role of the Syrian coalition.
While he welcomed the newfound recognition as “good” and “right” he cautioned against viewing the group of exiled opposition Syrians as a government, and said that the group needed to earn legitimacy from Syrians inside the country.
“We can’t talk about a transitional government now. We can only talk about that after the collapse of the current Assad regime,” Sabra said.
In granting recognition to the opposition body late Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said of the coalition: “We consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime.”
While this was widely interpreted as recognition of the body as the de facto administration of the Syrian state, the exact responsibility this recognition entails remains vague.
Sabra said it is important to distinguish between the role of an opposition administration to assist the toppling of President Bashar Assad, and an interim transitional government to be created in his wake.
“We can talk about the opposition government in exile. But we must wait until we have a free land to elect a new government,” he added.
Sabra said that while envoys could be appointed from the coalition to manage state relations, their role was to manage the efforts to topple the current regime.
He said the “Friends” recognition acted as tacit agreement from the U.S. to arm the opposition, and allowed the body to negotiate with states on an individual level to move that effort along.
“This helps us to fetch around for weapons here and there, to be supplied on a state by state basis,” he said.
“We have in place an administration of people who can manage, say, a fund for the Syrian people for the aid and humanitarian services, for the defensive capabilities, for the things they need to protect themselves. These are the sorts of services we can provide,” Sabra said, adding that the work, for now, was limited to liberated areas and was aimed at expanding control of territory through assisting local opposition councils.
“We need the people inside Syria to work to provide the bread, the work, administer the health care, the economy and defense, but these are the responsibilities of the elected government, which comes later.
“The temporary government can be built by the coalition, but the transitional government will be built by the coalition, along with Syrians inside the country,” Sabra added.
He said the distinction was important in order to establish credibility among the Syrian population.
The coalition and the SNC before it has been criticized for lacking legitimacy or adequate networks on the ground, a shortcoming Sabra acknowledged.
“We are not imposing this government on the people,” he said.
Meetings have been held in recent weeks as to what the post-Assad transitional government may look like, and disagreements have already erupted over who could take a leadership role, diplomats and opposition leaders have confided to The Daily Star.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are understood to have backed defected former Prime Minister Riad Hijab for the role of prime minister, while Qatar and Turkey supposedly back the current leader of the coalition, moderate Islamic preacher, Moaz al-Khatib.
Sabra said the debate had been set aside for now, but admitted the role of leader of the coalition was “somewhat of a poisoned chalice.”
“I have nothing personal against Riad Hijab but he was a part of the regime until just three months ago. He was America’s choice, not Syrian people’s,” he said. “I am sure he and others [defectors] will have a role in the future, but the public is not ready to accept him now.
“It would be bad for him and bad for us,” he said, adding that Khatib was “popular inside.”
In explaining the discussions, Sabra relayed a joke currently circulating among Syrians: “We say ‘Riad Hijab for prime minister, [defected Brig. Gen.] Manaf Tlass for Defense Ministry, [former Foreign Ministry spokesperson] Jihad Makdissi for Foreign Ministry ... and Bashar Assad for president, when he defects.’”