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Syria: an interim government in waiting

The rise of the Islamic State and bitter infighting has derailed the plans of Syria’s fledgling opposition government
Syria's interim government Prime Minister Ahmed Tohme (AFP/Lionel Bonaventure)

ISTANBUL – The internal controversy generated by the re-election of Ahmad Tomeh to head Syria’s opposition government is the latest in a long history of infighting that has plagued the Syrian opposition. However, the election generated little more than a whimper among ordinary Syrians.

As the votes came in last month, restoring Tomeh to the leadership of the Syrian Interim Government following his ousting earlier this year, some 35 members of the government’s umbrella organisation, the Syrian National Coalition, resigned in protest, in a now familiar move reflecting the paralysing divisions between opposition factions. But few Syrians – both inside and outside the country – expressed the slightest concern.

Many confessed to MEE that they neither knew, nor cared, whom the leadership of the interim government was. Few could easily recall that the alleged Qatari-backed former dentist and imam from Deir ez-Zor had been forced to step down, reportedly due to outside pressure, in the first place.

Asked about his reaction to Tomeh’s re-election, Habib, an engineer from central Homs and government opponent, confessed he couldn’t place him.

“He’s the prime minister?” he asked. “I knew the name, but couldn’t recall who he was.”

The lack of gusto about the vote can be seen as illustrative of the wider disillusionment now plaguing much of the Syrian opposition movement.

Meeting with MEE in an airport hotel lobby in Istanbul, where the interim government has its offices, the mild-mannered Tomeh admitted the need for greater reach and recognition on the ground inside Syria.

“The first thing we need to do is get back into Syria,” he said, outlining a seven-point agenda for the new government. 

“We need to help the employees of the government outside Syria operate and control the administration from inside more.”

Losing ground

The Syrian Interim Government was formed in March 2013 with a mandate from the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces to administer the large swathes of rebel-held territory in the north and east of Syria that had fallen out of government hands. It was reasoned that rebel territories needed an effective authority, with legitimacy on the ground, to act as an alternative government.

American and other opposition allies also needed a clear chain of command to channel humanitarian and military aid amid continued bitter infighting between the coalition’s rival factions and its international backers.

Fast-forward 18 months, three prime ministerships and an expenditure of tens of millions of dollars, and the government has accomplished little. Moreover, the aid spent in bolstering the opposition government appears to have had no effect stemming radical forces in Syria, as America and its allies had hoped it would.

Rather, the period of the interim government’s time in “power” has seen the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), the al-Qaeda offshoot that has consolidated vast swathes of the rebel-held territory the body was supposed to oversee. The battle against IS has supplanted the fight against Assad – the opposition’s original reason for existence – as a priority for the US, which is now engaged in airstrikes against IS in what was supposed to be opposition-held territory, and, according to some analyses, has even helped cement the Assad government’s hold on power. 

Disunited front

Increasingly left out of decision-making circles, no Syrians – from either government or opposition factions – were invited to attend a recent meeting of 21 members of the anti-IS coalition in Washington. Meanwhile, infighting and competition has continued among competing opposition factions aligned with rival financial and military backers, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 

Jockeying for position and title has served as an embarrassing distraction, exposing the role and influence of factional international backers. Time and again, various blocs and members have resigned in protest or support for alleged dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, or Saudi-backed leadership, essentially robbing the opposition of any real power, paralysing decision-making and foiling any hopes of a united front. 

The relationship between the Syrian National Coalition and the interim government in particular, has been fraught and, at times, theatrical. The latest permutation saw Tomeh elected for a second term to the premiership after his government was dissolved by the coalition in July 2014. Tomeh was stripped of his position, only to be reinstated again this month, in what was widely interpreted as part of an ongoing Qatari-Saudi power struggle. 

In June, Tomeh sacked the Supreme Military Council, the military wing of the Syrian opposition, whose leadership includes military and civilian chiefs of major rebel factions and local commands, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) chief-of-staff Abdelilah al-Bashir, whose predecessor was also sacked just months before. However, within hours, the council was reinstated after the Saudi-affiliated head of the coalition, Ahmad Jarba, annulled the decision and sought to rally a vote of no confidence in the cabinet. When Hadi al-Bahra, considered close to Saudi Arabia and the Jarba camp, took over the coalition as president after Jarba was forced to handover his seat after completing two terms in July, his first major act was to sack the interim government, in what pundits largely acknowledged as a move by Saudi to reassert authority over the opposition.

Then, on 16 October, the coalition cabinet once again elected Tomeh to head the government. Some 35 members withdrew from the election session in protest against what they called “the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood over the coalition”.

Tomeh, wearing a dark grey suit and speaking via an interpreter, denied his association with Qatar and said attempts to characterise the opposition as split along Saudi and Qatari lines were “wrong”.

“This characterisation is not true at all. We have a good relationship with Saudi Arabia. This view only exists in Syrian’s minds,” he said.

In a sign of just how bad relations had deteriorated, he admitted, however, that he has not spoken to Jarba in more than five months. 

He said the government was ready to “learn from the mistakes of the past” and insisted meetings aimed at overcoming differences between the factions had gone ahead last month.

“Hadi al-Bahra launched an initiative on the 16 October… and based on this we had another meeting last night. There is agreement on some points between both sides,” he said, referring to those who were for and against his recent re-election.

“We are Syrians, we started the revolution for the Syrian people, and aim to achieve some agreement to rescue the Syrian people.”

Outlining his seven-point agenda for the government, he said plans included the formation of a national army to defend the government and its areas of administration, the provision of services (such as schools, health-care, bakeries and electricity to citizens inside Syria); the organisation of local councils to enhance the concept of civil government in Syria; the creation of a National Army to protect the opposition government-held areas; development of civil authorities and police forces; promotion of civil society groups aligned with the government, and coordination with international powers to reach an agreement on providing travel documents and permits to the millions of refugees living in neighbouring countries,

“Another eighth point,” he noted, “is that we aim to promote the principles of democracy and promote/enhance the concept of civil society in Syria.”

With plans to arm and train a moderate opposition at the forefront of the US-led anti-IS coalition strategy to confront IS, unity of the western-backed opposition military forces is now critically important. But there are already signs of troubling setbacks on the ground, with Washington’s main ally, the Saudi-backed Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) losing territory to the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front in Idlib last week.

Asked for details on how the National Army would function and whether his sacking of the military council would impact relations and unity, Tomeh said an agreement had been reached determining that the Supreme Military Council acts as an “independent authority”.

“The Defence Ministry is part of the government, but the military council is an independent authority,” he said. “So the relationship is getting better.”

“The government is the executive power. We agree that the military council can be independent and we haven’t asked them to take any decisions from us, but we fund the military powers that are fighting on the ground.”

Tomeh said the National Army would have “two tasks: protecting the (interim) government and facing the enemies of the Syrian people - the regime and the radical militias”, referring to IS and al-Nusra.

“We agree with the Americans that IS is a threat to the region and Syria,” he said. “But we want for our friends to deal with the regime in the same way they deal with IS because the regime is the reason that IS grew.”

Amid ongoing media allegations that the Qatari government has lent support to IS and Nusra radicals, Tomeh denied that the government had been “cut out” of the decision-making circles to train and arm the moderate opposition forces. 

“America and friends are coordinating aid through the military operations room in Reyhanli city [in Turkey],” he said. The coalition and the government are continually communicating with the US. There is mutual cooperation.”

But he said fighting IS militarily was not enough, repeating calls for strikes to be expanded to attack Assad forces. 

“One of the biggest problems in the west is that they want to strike them only militarily… They forget about the reasons they are fighting this in the first place,” he said.

“We have to confront IS ideologically and economically.”

If the international powers support the Syrians, he argued, “then we will reduce the number of people supporting and joining IS.”

While airstrikes would not increase anti-American sentiment in Syria, he said, they were only a partial solution and a “disappointment for Syrians”. 

“I still remember in the beginning of the revolution when the people raised the flags of the British, French and Americans,” he said. A review of dozens of videos and media reports of anti-government protests by MEE found no evidence of this claim, while dozens of anti-government activists interviewed said no such flags were ever raised. 

“We want them to include the regime in airstrikes as well. Partial solutions are worse than a whole solution.”