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Case Analysis 21 April, 2013

The Opposition Government and the Legal Battle over the Representation of Syria


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

On March 18-19, 2013, in Istanbul, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces selected Ghassan Hito, a member of the National Council, as president of Syria's temporary government. When the National Coalition was established in Doha, in November 2012, one of the key objectives was to create a government capable of steering the areas liberated from the control of the Syrian regime-thus preventing a vacuum of power and the reign of chaos. Despite this, such achievements have not come easily, with disagreements occurring within the coalition, as well as between the countries supporting the Syrian revolution.

Differences among the Opposition

The Istanbul meeting came after a series of postponed meetings to select a president for the temporary government, the last of which was intended to take place on March 12, 2013. The delays were a result of the opposition's failure to agree on the idea of a temporary government, with two main camps prevailing in the coalition.

The first camp, headed by coalition president Muath al-Khatib, and supported by various liberal and independent figures, was cautious about the notion of a temporary government, and called instead for the establishment of an "executive committee" under the supervision of the coalition's political leadership. This committee would have overseen administration over the "liberated" regions, which would come after the coalition expanded and increased its representation of women, youth, the revolutionary movement, and minority groups, in addition to granting larger representation to military brigade leaders, which includes members of the Free Syrian Army, headed by brigadier Saleem Idris. This camp preferred to stall the establishment of a temporary government, while awaiting the outcome of the US-Russian negotiations on the implementation of the Geneva Accords. In this regard, al-Khateeb addressed the coalition's leadership on March 10, 2013, attempting to stall the establishment of a temporary government, stressing that any executive or national authority should aim to prevent chaos in the liberated zones, and avoid the division of Syria.

Al-Khatib also observed that any push toward establishing a temporary government with the objective of gaining Syria's chair in the Arab League would only act as a political gain and not as an objective in itself, and can therefore be postponed. In essence, the group was not against the existence of an executive body to administer the liberated zones, but was concerned about its composition, its appellation, its means of election, and the time of its establishment.

The second camp is supported by the bloc of the National Council, particularly the "Muslim Brotherhood" branch within it, along with Mostafa al-Sabbagh, representative of Syrian Business Forum and Secretary General to the National Coalition. The group called for the immediate creation of a temporary government, in line with the resolution of Arab foreign ministers in their meeting held on March 6, 2013. Syria's recent addition to the Arab League, in addition to Syrian representation at the Doha Summit on March 26, 2013, contributed to delegitimizing the Syrian regime, thus aiding international recognition of the temporary government as a legal body representing the Syrian people, and ultimately prompted the formation of a temporary government. This camp rejected the idea of waiting for the results of the US-Russian negotiations regarding Syria because they have been stalled since June 30, 2012, with no concrete results in sight in compliance with the Geneva Accords, especially paragraph nine, which stipulates a transfer of power and the establishment of a transitional government.

Disagreements on who should lead the temporary government were another reason behind the delay in its establishment. Dissident Prime Minister Riad Hajab, was initially suggested for presidency, but this choice was not pursued because key segments of the coalition, particularly the National Council, objected on the grounds that he was a former prime minister in Bashar al-Assad's regime. In many ways, the way in which they deal with dissidents of Assad's regime reflects the narrow-mindedness of the Syrian oppositions' figures and blocs. Typically, these dissidents are ignored and suppressed, either out of fear of the future role they may play, or out of personal and party interests. Paradoxically, this vision prevails among opposition blocs at a time when their speeches should be calling or urging army and government officials to split from the regime to join the opposition. Such an attitude lacks a pragmatic political vision needed to not only isolate the Syrian regime at the popular level, but also address all segments of society; it also occupies itself with the struggle over power at an early stage instead of strategizing on means to bring down the regime.

As a result, on February 28, 2013, Hajab submit to the coalition's president a written letter of withdrawal that was representative of all regime defectors within the coalition. In this letter, he indicated his decision not to run for presidency. Following his withdrawal from the candidacy, 12 other candidates put themselves forward, including former Minister of Agriculture Asad Mostafa and the National Council Member Osama al-Qadi.

Following the election of Ghassan Hito, a number of coalition members withdrew from the coalition in protest of the election, including the coalition's vice president Suheir al-Atasi (who later reconsidered her decision). Many analysts have indicated that the overall environment surrounding the elections, and not the actual election of Hito, is what led to the Muath al-Khatib's resignation from his position as president of the National Coalition a few days prior to the Arab League Summit.

Those upset with Hito's election resented the fact that he was mainly imposed as a candidate by the Muslim Brotherhood and the local council bloc that has, to date, behaved as a political movement and not as a local council's representative of regions. Others protested his election based on their unfamiliarity with his political activism, which they feel indicates he is not familiar with the Syrian context since he has been residing in the United States since 1985. Those objecting to this election also noted their preference in choosing a candidate from within the country, from any of the known political opposition leaders, or from the dissidents of the former regime with experience in administering Syrian state institutions. In any case, Hito's victory, with 35 out of the 53 votes-the total number of coalition members is 64 (nine of which withdrew from the elections)-submitted by those who participated in the election process, is a reflection of the division among the opposition front. The election has triggered cautious attitudes within Syria as some of the Free Syrian Army leaders and its brigades had reservations, despite the declaration of the Chief of General Staff Brigadier Saleem Idriss regarding his support for the "establishment of a government that is achieved through consensus of the national coalition and the Syrian political opposition forces," effectively confirming his willingness to work under such a government

Conflicting International and Regional Stances  

The stances of some international forces played an influential role not only in postponing the establishment of the temporary government, but also in naming its president. The US remained the most adamant against establishing the temporary government, which it demonstrated on more than one occasion by applying pressure to establish the government to prevent the holding of a coalition meeting. The US remained unenthusiastic over the establishment of a temporary government up until the Istanbul meeting.

Upon the election of Ghassan Hito, the Americans proceeded to belittle this initiative. In a testimony before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, noted that any establishment of a temporary Syrian government led by the opposition would not affect US-Russian efforts aiming at establishing a transitional government, which would come as a result of negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition. Ford expressed that this temporary government is an "interim" one until the establishment of a transitional government, and that the responsibility of the temporary government established by the opposition would be "limited to the administrative supervision of the liberated zones".

France and Britain, on the other hand, welcomed the opposition's establishment of a temporary government and their election of Ghassan Hito as its president, though their position is only supportive insofar as this initiative represents another tool to pressure al-Assad's regime to accept the principle of negotiations, eventually leading to the implementation of the Geneva Accords. Conversely, the French-British endeavor to lift the European ban on arming the opposition falls within this strategy, ultimately seeking to apply additional pressure on the Syrian regime to accept a political solution that would be achieved through a rebalance of military power on the ground.

The Arab League's Surprise

Despite the US' objection to the establishment of a temporary government, the Arab League proceeded to increase its pressure on the Syrian regime by offering its seat in the League to the opposition on the condition that it is handed over after its government is established since such seats are occupied by governments and not coalitions. During the 24th Arab League Summit, the Arab League invited the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces to occupy Syria's seat in the Arab League, after executing the conditional resolution of the Arab foreign ministers, which was issued on March 6, 2013 and dictates the establishment of an executive authority. Undeniably, the pressures exerted by the Arab League played a decisive role in pushing the Syrian opposition to overcome their differences regarding the establishment of a temporary government and the election of its president. Had such pressures not been enforced, negotiations could have been stalled for much longer.

The Arab League's handing the Syrian seat to the National Coalition came as a surprise to many and crystallized a new trend of common Arab initiatives, marking the first time for the Arab League to undertake such a decision since its establishment in 1945. In fact, just prior to the February 17 Libyan revolution, the Arab League refused to officially grant the Libyan seat to the Libyan National Council until after the liberation of the city of Tripoli, and the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

The Arab League's initiative has given the Syrian opposition important responsibilities in its quest to delegitimize the Syrian regime and call for international acknowledgment of the opposition, referring to the opposition's ability to represent the Syrian people in the United Nations. As a result, the concluding statement of the most recent Arab League Summit included an article urging regional and international organizations to recognize the National Coalition as the sole and legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and to grant it the eligibility and legitimacy necessary for such a representation.

Obstacles Facing the Temporary Government

There is no denying that successfully electing a president for the temporary government is a vital step toward organizing the opposition and granting it further legitimacy, but there are numerous challenges awaiting this anticipated government; the consequences of dealing with such challenges will have a grave effect on the future of Syria. The first challenge lies in establishing the government, and working from within Syria to ensure that the temporary government is in touch with the reality and needs of the liberated zones. Without this, the government will not gain the necessary internal legitimacy since the liberated zones require governmental administration in order to fill the administrative void caused by the absence of a state authority. This requires close cooperation with the heads of the Free Syrian Army and the brigades of the armed opposition, and will consequently require the achievement of tangible achievements in allocating security and legal authority, combatting crime, and limiting armed chaos. Additionally, they will need to protect strategic establishments and public and private facilities, activate the court system, as well as the administrative and service institutions that are controlled by the rebels, and finally, control the border crossings of the "liberated" zones.

The temporary government should also follow up on the situation of refugees and displaced people inside and outside of Syria, effectuating the return of displaced individuals to their homeland, and should set the required plans to ensure the fulfillment of their humanitarian relief needs. The temporary government should provide military and financial support to the Free Syrian Army, the joint chiefs of staff, and the rebels. Such support will confirm their ability to control the various armed opposition groups. The success of this government in representing the Syrian people depends on developing a persuasive rhetoric explaining its representation to the entire spectrum of Syrian society and not just a specific group within it. If this is not achieved, the Syrian revolution risks falling into the same tense situation of Egypt following its revolution.

The temporary government will be required to continue managing the battle to delegitimize the Syrian regime, whether through developing a media campaign that can influence international public opinion in favor of the Syrian revolution or through the pursuit of gaining Syria's seat in the United Nations, its subsidiary bodies, and other regional and international organizations. Such measures will enable the new government to take hold of the embassies and enable their function. This step would help recognize this body as the legal representative of the state of Syria in a manner that allows it to allocate the frozen funds of the Syrian people, utilizing them to facilitate governmental affairs and offer citizen services.

The temporary government must face these challenges if it views itself as an alternative authority to the Syrian regime. If it truly sees its role as being confined to applying pressure to push the regime toward accepting a political settlement, a view adopted by many international parties as well as parties from within the coalition, this would entail its readiness to face the implementation of the Geneva Accords, and establish a transitional government that could potentially pave the way for the regime's fall.

In any of these circumstances, it is inevitable that the leaders of the Syrian revolution must overcome a series of critical tasks in order to achieve the fall of the tyrannical regime in Syria. Their first task is to set a uniform military strategy and to provide for its components, including the exertion of pressure on donor countries in order to coordinate their full support, in addition to pressuring local brigades to accept a military hierarchy to enable the implementation of common plans. The second priority requires them to build institutions and set up plans to support Syrians in the liberated zones and in exile. This should not be limited to specific strata of Syrian society, and should not be utilized to accomplish political gains for certain groups.

Additionally, they need to develop a political rhetoric for the revolution that encompasses all of the Syrian people, accommodating defectors into the revolution's military and civil institutions, as they are indispensable to the course of the revolution. Lastly, they must prepare a diplomatic media release to counter not only the regime's claims that there is a surge of Islamic terrorism, but also the prioritization of issues such as chemical weaponry and Israel's security over Syria.


*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.