Syria Opposition Faces Vote

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Leadership Divided Ahead of Meeting to Choose Cabinet, Appoint Prime Minister

Syria’s main opposition group is set to start talks on Monday to form a cabinet and appoint a prime minister to oversee the regions under rebel control.

But the run-up to the meeting has exposed divisions in the opposition over one primary issue: whether to include members of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in any political transition.

Anti-Assad protestors waved Syrian opposition flags last week in Istanbul, where opposition heads are set to meet Monday to pick a prime minister.

Sheik Mouaz al-Khatib, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, and a group of his backers is trying to lure loyalists away from the regime and into a broader government made up of opposition and regime officials.

His bold break from hardliners in the opposition, who reject a political settlement and want to fight their way to victory, has earned him respect from many moderate Syrians. But within his own coalition, he is a minority, with many members who loathe to share power with regime officials accusing him of betraying the group’s mandate of working to oust Mr. Assad.

“We are telling him to resign,” said Kamal Labwani, an independent coalition member. “If that happens, we finish off this illusion of dialogue” with regime members. “We have liberated this land with our blood,” he said of rebel-held areas. “Let’s set up a government already.”

The wrangling over the type of government to create—as well as who will lead it—has caused the meeting to be rescheduled twice in two weeks. The Monday gathering shows Mr. Khatib has agreed to help form an interim government this week instead of delaying the process while he tries to further his aims.

A Khatib spokesman said the leader wasn’t available for comment, but that the coalition was committed to selecting a prime minister this week.

Opposition members who favor the quick formation of an interim opposition government argue that such a move will boost the rebels by unlocking more aid and, eventually, international legal recognition. Foreign diplomats have said the establishment of an opposition government is one precursor to legal recognition, which could allow the opposition cabinet to purchase arms and unfreeze government assets.

A successful cabinet, some council members say, would receive foreign funds to help administer rebel-controlled areas, including Raqqa and parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where state institutions have all but collapsed and left communities to fend for themselves. They argue that an interim government would raise the coalition’s influence on the ground and rein in Islamists who are now gaining support by offering services in the absence of any government.

Defense, economy, and finance ministers would track funds pledged for aid, salaries to rebel fighters being sporadically paid by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the dispensing of arms and equipment. A cabinet and defense ministry, they also hope, would encourage more government and military defections.

On Saturday, Brigadier General Muhammad Khallouf, a well-known general, announced his defection in a video broadcast on a pan-Arab television channel. Rebels said they sneaked out Gen. Khallouf, the former head of an intelligence branch where activists regularly report being tortured, through Jordan.

As the pace of senior defections has slowed, his defection signals that senior officials are still considering switching sides as the conflict begins its third year. It also appears to show that rebels are still open to coordinate the exit of senior regime officials linked to the violence.

Still, an opposition government faces challenges. For one, rebel fighters have increasingly rejected the authority of opposition figures, especially those based abroad. Islamist rebel factions, in particular, are creating their own political branches.

A popular former cleric from Damascus, Mr. Khatib has appealed to two largely pro-regime constituencies in Damascus to join the opposition: the merchant class, and the moderate, religious establishment to which he belongs. In January, he said he was prepared to hold talks with Damascus through the vice president. Mr. Assad didn’t respond publicly to the offer.

Critics say that Mr. Khatib may be moving too close to the circles associated with Mr. Assad—even if his end-goal is to secure an exit path for the president.

“You have these mini turf wars between fighters across Syria, but there’s also a high-politics struggle between different establishments,” said Malik al-Abdeh, a Syrian writer from a longtime dissident family. “This is the struggle for who is going to control Syria playing out.”

The coalition’s largest faction, the Syrian National Council, wants to quickly form an interim government, as agreed when the nearly 70-member coalition was formed in Doha in November.

Mr. Khatib held back on pushing through an interim government after that, amid what his associates said was pressure from some United Nations and Western officials in talks with Syrian ally Russia, which insists that Mr. Assad or his representatives must included in the process.

At a coalition meeting in Cairo last month, Mr. Khatib voted against moving to appoint a government this week, while the majority overruled him, several members who attended the meeting said.

Instead, he has joined talks with Western officials to identify potential candidates to represent the regime in a broader government, say Western diplomats and coalition members. “He wants to build bridges,” said Samir Nachar, a coalition member. “It’s a tough game.”

Meanwhile, political factions are vying to push their candidates to the top spot in an interim government. These are the first talks, oppositions leaders say, in which emerging leaders backed by Mr. Khatib will compete with more established opposition factions, including the Syrian National Council and, within it, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Among the candidates for interim prime minister include Assad Moustafa, an ex-agriculture minister from Hama; Osama Kadi, a Canada-based economist from Aleppo; and tribal leader Sheikh Salim al-Moslet.

In Syria, activists and fighters are eager for better coordination but wary of unmet promises for help—and political power grabs.

“There are fighters who don’t have the money for a loaf of bread,” a fighter in the Aleppo countryside said by Skype. “And suddenly a government of people they have never heard of has been established to rule. They won’t accept it,” he said.

 The Christian Science  Monitor

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