ALEPPO, Syria — The northern province of Idlib, controlled by the armed opposition, witnessed the first clash between two local opposition governments. Disputes began in early December between the Syrian Relief Government, which was formed Nov. 2 at al-Hawa border crossing, and the Syrian Interim Government of the Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, established in March 2013.
The dispute between the two governments emerged when an official from the Interim Government accused the Relief Government of supporting terrorism. At the same time, other disagreements arose in Idlib and its surroundings in the countryside of Aleppo and Hama, where the Relief Government is trying to extend its influence and expel the Interim Government.
A member of the executive office of the political committee in Idlib province, Mohammed Shakib al-Khalid, told Al-Monitor that the committee intervened to resolve the dispute between the Syrian Relief Government and the Interim Government, both of which are affiliated with the Syrian opposition.
Khalid explained that the political committee in Idlib was formed on Nov. 24, 2016. It is considered a political front for revolutionaries in Idlib and is composed of revolutionary popular figures and activists working in various sectors in Idlib, while attempting to spare the province a clash between the two opposition governments.
The Relief Government responded to the mediation on Dec. 15 and suspended the warning it gave the Interim Government, stating, “Based on national interests and in respect to those fighting on battlefronts, a meeting was held between the revolutionary figures and the Relief Government, represented by its president. After long discussions, the warning was suspended.”
Despite the intervention of Idlib’s political committee and the efforts it employed in order to suspend this warning, tension still prevails over the relationship between the two opposition-affiliated governments, located in Idlib and surrounding opposition-controlled areas.
“We expect escalation between the two governments because they cannot exist in one geographical area. The conflict between them will soon intensify until one of them is eliminated,” Mahmoud Rahal, a lawyer and activist, told Al-Monitor.
Rahal explained that on Dec. 19, the Relief Government closed the offices of the Interim Government ministries of Health and Higher Education in the city of Maarat al-Nu'man. In the city of Saraqib in Idlib’s countryside, the Relief Government closed the offices of the Interim Government-affiliated Grain Center. He noted that the Relief Government took these measures with the help of members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Interim Government is represented by the Idlib Provincial Council, the Aleppo Provincial Council and the Hama Provincial Council, all of which are controlled by the opposition. Other temporary service centers and local councils in the cities and towns under the control of the opposition are affiliated with the Interim Government, which also has several offices for its ministries in opposition-controlled areas.
Statements made by the director of public relations and communication in the Interim Government, Yasser al-Hajji, during an interview with Shaam Network on Dec. 4 caused the dispute with the Relief Government to escalate. He stressed the Interim Government’s refusal to cooperate or deal with any government connected in any way possible to terrorism, whether through persons or groups.
These statements came in response to an initiative suggesting the merger of the Interim and Relief governments in northern Syria. The initiative’s terms suggested that Jawad Abu Hatab, the president of the Interim Government, and Mohammed al-Sheikh, the president of the Relief Government, to serve as president and vice president of the government that would be formed by merging the two. This initiative was proposed Dec. 4 by Syrian opposition figures in the opposition-controlled northern Syria, including Mamoun Sayed Issa.
On Dec. 9, the Relief Government issued a statement condemning Hajji’s statements. The Relief Government also addressed a letter to its Ministry of Justice on Dec. 12 to file a lawsuit against Hajji for the crime of incitement, holding the Interim Government responsible for his words.
On the same day, Dec. 12, the Relief Government issued a sharp statement against the Interim Government and gave it a 72-hour deadline to leave Idlib and neighboring areas in the western and southern countryside of Aleppo and to withdraw all of its personnel. The statement, signed by Sheikh, read, “To the Syrian Interim Government, we warn you to close all your offices in the liberated areas within 72 hours of the date of notification.”
The Interim Government said in an official statement Dec. 12 that official statements were issued exclusively by the office of the president of the Syrian Interim Government and that any other statement issued by any employee represented only his personal opinion, in reference to Hajji’s views, which sparked the dispute between the two governments.
The Syrian Relief Government was established on Nov. 2 in the opposition-controlled northern Syria as a result of the Syrian General Conference held in Idlib in September. A 36-member constituent body was formed at the end of the conference. In turn, the constituent body elected Sheikh to be president of what was later called the Relief Government in northern Syria.
The Relief Government is facing a lot of criticism and many questioned its independence from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham since it was the one that called on July 23 for a meeting between political figures in northern Syria areas that are not under regime control. This is how the Syrian General Conference was born, resulting in the Relief Government being formed.
Rahal explained that the Relief Government’s decision is to suspend the warning, which means tension could escalate if the Interim Government is not responsive and does not put an end to its media campaign against the Relief Government.
“Both governments need to merge, otherwise the dispute would never come to an end, which will affect the revolution’s interests in the liberated areas of Idlib and the surrounding areas. This is a popular demand,” Rahal said.
Rivalry and confrontation between the two governments may not stop, and the Relief Government will strive to extend its control over the local councils. The Interim Government will likely not stand idly by, which foreshadows an escalation to eliminate either government. However, the Interim Government will most likely be the victim because the Relief Government derives its power from major military groups in Idlib, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.