CAIRO: Syrian opposition leaders will meet in Istanbul on March 2 to choose a prime minister to head a provisional government that would operate in rebel-controlled areas of Syria, a coalition source said Friday.
The move was aimed at halting a slide into chaos in regions captured by insurgent brigades and estimated to comprise over half the country, although exiled coalition leaders exert little control or influence over rebels in Syria.
The date was set after a compromise was struck within the Syrian National Coalition between a bloc that includes the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and others who favor the speedy formation of a government, the source told Reuters at the end of a two-day meeting of the coalition in Cairo.
“A compromise was reached. The coalition agreed to meet again in Istanbul exclusively to choose a prime minister,” the source said.
The premier would then name a government, the source added, although it was not clear if it could operate immediately from rebel zones given that President Bashar Assad’s forces still wield formidable air, artillery and missile power all over Syria.
Coalition leaders renewed their efforts to form the provisional government a day after insisting that any peace talks must result in the removal of Assad, whose family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for 42 years.
Almost two years after an anti-Assad uprising erupted, the absence of a political leadership in land under rebel control has been a glaring weakness of opposition leaders, who have no authority over Islamist brigades making advances on the ground.
“You have a situation developing where chaos reigns in liberated areas while, relatively, there is still fuel, electricity and basic services in the Assad-held regions,” a diplomat in contact with the opposition said.
“If the situation persists like this, popular support for the opposition will dwindle and they could lose the war.”
On the second day of the SNC meetings, members heard reports from a committee formed to help decide whether a provisional government is viable while civil war rages and whether it would attract enough international financial and diplomatic support.
Opposition sources estimate that several billion dollars is needed every month for a government to function in rebel-held areas, mostly countryside and desert thought to comprise more than half of the Arab state’s landmass.
The coalition’s current financial backing falls way short of that, the sources said. However, they added that Qatar, a major Gulf Arab supporter of the revolt, this week pledged $100 million for humanitarian aid to be administered by the Assistance Coordination Unit, the coalition’s non-partisan wing.
The opposition’s failure to provide services in rebel-controlled areas and increasing reports of rebel indiscipline and looting have cut into public support for their cause.
Opposition brigades have wrested large swathes of Syria from Assad’s military but these areas remain vulnerable to artillery, airstrikes and, increasingly, missiles.
But a coalition member said: “Even if a government is not viable right now we should name a prime minister and let him start forming it to send a message to the people on the inside who are demanding one.”
Opposition by the Muslim Brotherhood helped scuttle an attempt backed by coalition secretary general Mustafa al-Sabbagh, a businessman with strong links to the Gulf, to name former Syrian premier Riad Hijab as prime minister at a meeting in Istanbul last month, the sources said.
Hijab, the regime’s highest-ranking defector since the revolt began, lacks good ties with the Brotherhood. Several liberals in the coalition also oppose him because he was a long-serving operative for the ruling Baath Party.
“Hijab has said the right things and is an administrator. He is qualified but his history in the regime plays against him,” a coalition member said. The meeting of the Western, Arab and Turkish-backed coalition began Thursday, ahead of a planned visit by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem to Moscow, one of Assad’s last foreign allies.
One diplomat said the coalition spent a long time debating a peace proposal that appeared to “be going nowhere” and that it was time it got to the nitty gritty of governance, such as how to administer the newly pledged aid from Qatar and building an alternative administration.
Coalition president Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib came under fire from all sides for proposing talks with Assad’s regime without setting what they described as clear goals.
The coalition adopted a document that demands Assad’s removal and his trial for the bloodshed, members said. Any political solution must be based on “the removal of Bashar Assad and the heads of the military and security apparatus responsible for the decisions that led the country to this stage,” a statement said.
The statement said any future initiatives must emanate from the 12-member collective leadership of the coalition.
Outspoken coalition member and veteran dissident Kamal Labwani said forming a government was necessary, and all but canceled the dialogue initiative.
“The revolution needs this. We can no longer work from outside. We need a government that can manage the policing, the armed units, the courts, as well as the money, the resources, the industry, the agriculture,” he told The Daily Star by telephone from Sweden.
Labwani said Khatib was unlikely to pursue the dialogue initiative alone: “I don’t think he will resign, but he must respect the decisions of the coalition.”
The decision came amid a spike in violence in the country.
Activists said at least 12 people, including children, were killed in three blasts in the northern city of Aleppo.
The director of the opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman, said the explosions appeared to have been caused by missiles which hit the eastern neighborhoods of Hamra and Tariq al-Bab. The Observatory said dozens of people were wounded, and that many more are believed to be trapped under the rubble of damaged buildings.
Also Friday, Syrian warplanes and artillery hit targets near Damascus International Airport. There were no immediate reports of casualties.