Middle East

Challenges await new interim government

A girl rides a bicycle amidst damaged buildings and vehicles along a street in the besieged area of Homs November 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Thaer Al Khalidiya)

BEIRUT: The newly unveiled provisional government of the opposition Syrian National Coalition will face the uphill task of securing credibility on the ground through the priority task of aid provision to war-ravaged areas.

While Coalition members congratulated themselves this week for finally naming individuals to portfolios in the fledgling government, the achievement coincided with the announcement by Kurdish groups that they were forming their own transitional autonomous authority in parts of Syria where they hold sway.

In Istanbul Tuesday, the General Assembly of the National Coalition filled nine of 12 positions in the interim government of Prime Minister Ahmad Tohme.

Tohme is joined by Iyad Qudsi (deputy prime minister), Asaad Mustafa (defense), Ibrahim Miro (finance and economy), Mohammad Yassin Najjar (communications and industry), Othman Badawi (local administration), Fayez Daher (justice), Elias Warda (energy), Walid Zoubi (infrastructure and agriculture) and Taghrid Hajli (culture and family).

Meanwhile, Ahmad Qurabi (interior) Mohammad Jamil Jarran (health) and Abdel-Rahman Hajj (education) failed to secure the required two-thirds vote in the General Assembly to be named to their portfolios.

Munzer Aqbiq, the chief of staff of Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba, acknowledged that Tohme’s government was facing serious obstacles as it took up its tasks – ironically, the health and education slots, which are critical in the aid outreach, remained vacant.

Aqbiq told The Daily Star the government was obviously facing “many challenges” of service provision, especially in areas that are controlled by hard-line jihadist groups hostile to the Coalition and its nationalist goals.

“There are vast areas of the country that are controlled by the [rebel] Free Syrian Army, with millions of people in them. We will start there,” he said, in referring to places where the Coalition would have few excuses in not getting aid to the public.

“But we also have to provide services in areas where ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria] is in control.”

The Coalition accuses ISIS of being in league with the regime, and considers the Nusra Front, another jihadist militia, of being a terror group affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

A third group of rebel-controlled areas is dominated by groups such as the Tawhid Brigade or the Ahrar al-Sham movement, which are non-jihadist Islamist militias.

While these groups have rejected the political leadership of the Coalition, they aren’t necessarily hostile to its mainstream politicians and the Free Syrian Army.

“I hope that they will be reasonable” about coordinating the flow of aid supplies, Aqbiq said. “I think that something can be worked out.”

However, Aqbiq declined to specify a target date for the provisional government’s work to have an impact.

“Today [Wednesday], the government had its first, multihour meeting,” Aqbiq said, “And there was a high level of seriousness.”

Aqbiq said that Tohme was continuing to study ways to fill the three vacant posts on a temporary basis.

“The prime minister believes that these positions cannot remain frozen for a long period of time,” he said.

The chief of staff was adamant that the provisional government would address the needs of all rebel-held regions, including Damascus and Deraa in the far south, although its headquarters will likely remain in Gaziantep, Turkey for the foreseeable future.

“In general, in any place where there are armed groups that don’t pose a threat to the [provisional] government employees, we can work there,” he said.

An independent activist, who requested anonymity, questioned whether the new government would get any aid to areas such as Raqqa, where ISIS and other Islamist militias dominate the scene.

“In general, the [provisional] government’s performance on aid will have to be assessed in a few months’ time, to see if it will have any impact,” he added.

And while the Coalition this week approved the inclusion of more Kurdish members to its General Assembly, Kurdish groups got the jump on the National Coalition, when they announced their own provisional administration.

The Coalition Wednesday described them as “hostile” forces.

It said the announcement, led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) “amounts to a separatist act shattering any relationship with the Syrian people who are battling to achieve a free, united and independent state,” the Coalition said.

It accused the PYD of attacking FSA units and “shirking the struggle” against the Assad regime.

But Saleh Muslim, the head of the PYD, told Reuters in Paris that the announcement represented only a “provisional” move, until there was a violable solution to the Syrian crisis.

Muslim accused Turkey of trying to “divide the Kurds by bringing certain [Kurdish] parties into the [opposition] Syrian National Coalition,” he said. “They are just trying to keep the Kurds from representing themselves.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 14, 2013, on page 8.




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