Syrian Opposition Leader Warns About Partition

Article Summary
The head of the National Syrian Coalition fears that setting up an interim government to administer northern Syria, something Qatar is pushing for, may end up partitioning the country, writes Mohammad Ballout.

In an internal message to his colleagues in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCR), NCR leader Moaz al-Khatib has rebelled against his own coalition and his Syrian National Council (SNC) ally by rejecting the formation of an “interim government.” He warned that it may worsen the situation and eventually lead to the partition of Syria.

There will be no meeting in Istanbul tomorrow. There will also be no “provisional government” or even an executive body that the Syrian opposition can use to oversee the opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria. The Istanbul meeting got postponed for the second time and NCR members will not be going to any negotiations unless several parties agree. The first of those parties is the NCR leader himself, who rejects the formation of an interim government. That has pushed back the Istanbul meeting to Mar.18 or 20.

The date has not been finalized anyway, and the meeting may take place if the Qataris pressure the Syrian opposition. Otherwise, the third meeting may be attended by only those who choose to attend as long as there is a quorum, according to NCR internal regulations.

Khatib emailed NCR members and excused himself from attending the NCR meeting for the second time. The Muslim Brotherhood also excused itself from attending. Thus, the NCR meeting had no quorum to resolve the issue of forming an interim government.

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In his email, Khatib explained why he will not attend a “meeting that [he] did not request in the first place.” He said that some parties are trying to pressure him and impose their views. He criticized the supporters of the Qatari solution, which entails forming a provisional government before it is too late. If an interim government is formed before the Arab League summit in Doha on Mar. 26, it will take over Syria’s seat in the Arab League.

Khatib said that “hasty decisions may have short-term benefits on the surface, but would in reality have many negative implications. Having a seat in the Arab League would be an important gain but it is not a goal in itself, and postponing it for a few weeks will not be a major loss.”

It has become clear that the dispute over how to administer the rebel-controlled areas may undo the NCR, especially given that its leader has no influential bloc to can impose his point of view.

The external opposition wants to form an interim government to expand its diplomatic presence, strengthen the Qatari-Turkish-Saudi axis within the Arab League, and confront the possibility of a Russian-American understanding to impose the Geneva Accord as a solution. That accord would form a transitional government having both regime and opposition representatives.

Khatib said, “We should not rush to form an interim government and forget what is more important. [They told us,] ‘if you do not form a government then you will not obtain a seat! If you don’t form the NCR you will not obtain so many millions of dollars from the regime’s money.’”

Those who support forming an interim government wish to transform it into a de facto government that cannot accommodate the participation of any regime figures. Khatib prefers to form an executive authority that performs minimal civil administration duties over an interim government that would lead to the establishment of “two Syrias,” the first of which would be in the north and ruled by the opposition and the second to be ruled by the current regime. He said that “it is important to have a ruling authority, but who said it has to be called a “government”? Let it be called an executive authority or a national authority. What will prevent chaos in the liberated areas? What will prevent the failure [of that authority]? The more dangerous thing is the division of Syria.”

In the absence of a bloc that supports his political line, Khatib can only question the legitimacy of an interim government. He wonders, “Who do those in NCR represent? How can they form a government in the name of all Syrians?”

Khatib’s bloc in the NCR consists of no more than ten members, according to a Syrian oppositionist, but it includes a prominent name: Riad Seif. It also includes Rima Fleihan, Hareth al-Nabhan, Ziad Abou Ahmad, Okab Yehyia, Monther Makhos, and Walid al-Bunni, but “most of them are from minority communities, which makes that bloc not very influential in the NCR,” according to an NCR member.

The Qataris are highly influential inside the NCR by means of the 15 to 28-member-bloc of Secretary General Mustafa Sabbagh, whom the Qataris strongly supported when the NCR was being formed in Doha. Sabbagh runs the Syrian Businessmen Forum.

A prominent opposition figure said that Sabbagh is Qatar’s man and that he has prepared a team that is ready to take over the interim government. The opposition figure in the NCR said that the Syrian prime minister who defected, “Riad Hjab is still a candidate to head the interim government even though he said he would not do so. Former Syrian agriculture minister, dissident Asaad Mustafa, is another possible name to head that government...It’s no secret that the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is issuing the orders and others are only implementing them.”

Elsewhere, Reuters, AFP and AP said that the Turkish opposition’s Republican People’s Party reported that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said to a Turkish parliamentary delegation he met in Damascus last Thursday that the Syrian army cannot control some areas in Syria. He also accused Ankara of supporting “terrorists.” Assad reportedly said, “We cannot control all of Syria. We are focusing on the big cities. There are attacks by terrorists in the countryside...About 75% of the border with Turkey is controlled by al-Qaeda and 25% by the PKK — which Turkey, the United States, and the European Union classify as a terrorist organization.”

Assad said that “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Emir of Qatar made of the Syrian crisis a personal issue to strengthen their positions and further their Islamist agenda in Syria.”

On the ground, gunmen reopened the Baba Amr front in Homs about a year after it was closed. They launched an attack on the neighborhood as they maintained their attacks on other neighborhoods that are still outside their control. An armed Islamist group formed the Sharia Committee for Eastern Syria to administer the people’s affairs in Deir el-Zour, as the radical Islamists’ influence is increasing. The UN warned that the nearly two-year-old conflict may end up doubling or tripling the number of Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries. That number is now over one million.

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Found in: syrian national coalition, syrian opposition, syrian national council, syrian crisis, syrian, security, negotiations, moaz al-khatib, bashar al-assad
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