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Syrians Postpone Selection of Opposition Prime Minister

Progress in rebel efforts to create alternative government has been stalled by some in Syrian National Coalition who believe another route to peace may be achieved by UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, shown here with Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Mouallem. on September 13, 2012. (AP)
The Syrian opposition has once again postponed choosing a prime minister to lead a provisional government that would replace the 42-year-old regime headed by incumbent president, Bashar al-Assad.

Officials said the Syrian National Coalition postponed the vote, scheduled for Tuesday, because opposition factions in Qatar and Turkey were still debating the timing of creating a transitional administration.

“We postponed the meeting because we need more discussion,” the coalition’s spokesman, Walid al-Bunni, told VOA Monday. He said the election to choose a prime minister will now be held no later than March 20.

The major point of disagreement is whether to choose a new government now or wait to see if U.N. negotiations can offer a political solution. “That’s the main problem,” Bunni said.

Faction hopes for UN negotiation

Some opposition leaders have argued that a quick decision was needed to prevent the two-year civil war from turning Syria into a failed state with separate regions ruled by rival military factions. Other opposition factions have been looking for a political solution to come from the negotiations led by the U.N.-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.

The prospect of a political solution to the civil war has been an ongoing undercurrent in opposition politics. The chairman of the opposition coalition, Moaz Al-Khatib, made his own unilateral offer to negotiate with the Assad regime in January, but he was criticized by other coalition leaders.

Brahimi, who has shuttled between Damascus, Moscow and other world capitals pushing for a negotiated settlement over the past six months, praised Khatib’s initiative.

However, previous efforts to draw Assad into negotiations have failed. Assad has agreed to three ceasefires -- two with the U.N. and one with the Arab League -- but no ceasefire has resulted.

The elephant in the room that nobody talks about is who’s going to fund it?
Amr al-Azm
The opposition inside Syria has been highly critical of the U.N. efforts, claiming that the failed ceasefires have only given the regime more time to prosecute the war with air and armored attacks on rebel-held regions. The U.N. estimates the past two years of fighting have killed more than 70,000, forced about a million refugees into neighboring countries and left more than 2 million displaced inside Syria.

Follow the money

Despite their differences with the U.N. effort and each other, all the Syrian opposition factions insist that any transitional government and its prime minister will need major financial backing if it is to succeed.

“The elephant in the room that nobody talks about is who’s going to fund it,” said Amr al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history in Ohio who stays in close touch with the opposition leadership in his native Syria.

“You put a government together and it’s got to have money,” says Azm. “Whoever gets selected as the next government body entity, are they going to have access to proper funds or not? If they don’t have access to those funds, then it’s nonsense.”

Funding questions also stymied the first of Syria’s umbrella of opposition forces, the Syrian National Council. The Council’s leaders were reluctant to form an opposition government unless they had major support from the international community.

Recently, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been singled out as potential financial backers for a replacement government in Damascus.

The Council is now part of the overall Syrian National Coalition and has close ties to Turkey. The link to Qatar, according to Azm, is through the Coalition’s secretary-general, Mustafa Sabbagh.

His (Khatib's) constituency is actually outside on the ground which makes him quite valuable
Amr al-Azm
“And then you have Moaz al-Khatib floating on top of all of that, with no real constituency within the coalition,” Azm said. As a Damascus cleric who left Syria just over a year ago, Khatib, now the Coalition’s chairman, remains a major force in the coalition.

“His constituency is actually outside on the ground which makes him quite valuable,” Azm says of Khatib’s support from the demonstrators who initiated the protests for reform that turned into an armed rebellion.

Names being discussed for prime minister

Coalition rules prohibit members from running for prime minister, but several potential candidates began campaigning when a front-runner, Syria’s former foreign minister, Riad Hijab, withdrew from the race.

Salem al-Moslet, 55, is one of three potential candidates for prime minister from among the old Syria National Council grouping. Moslet served as the council’s leader of Syria’s tribal groups. The other two Council candidates are Burhan Ghalioun and Osama Al-Qadi.

Ghalioun, now a sociology professor at the University of Paris, was a president of the Council until forced to resign in a dispute with other Council factions.

Qadi, a native of Aleppo, is now president of Concordia College of Canada and founded a non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C.