Will Syrian opposition move interim government to Idlib?

In an interview with An-Nahar, the Syrian coalition head argues that despite concerns of an "Islamist emirate," the time is ripe to move the government inside the country.

al-monitor Members of al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra man a checkpoint in Idlib, March 30, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Abed Kontar.

Topics covered

syrian regime, syrian rebels, syrian opposition, raqqa, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state, idlib, isis

Apr 7, 2015

There is a question weighing heavily on Syrian and international public opinion, especially after the liberation of Raqqa, as well as its hijacking and annexation to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist caliphate: What will happen after the Idlib liberation?

The Syrian opposition coalition is seeking to move the interim government to Idlib in order to be able to run the city. However, two obstacles are hindering this plan. The first is the identity of the factions that have liberated Idlib, as most of them are extremists, Jabhat al-Nusra being one of them. The second obstacle is protecting the government headquarters from the Syrian regime bombing in the event of its transfer to Idlib.

An-Nahar spoke to Ahmad Touma, prime minister of the interim government affiliated with the coalition. Touma stressed that “the fundamental task of the government is to provide services to people. What concerns us is for our work not to be hindered. If we achieve this step and manage to carry out our business through relief, health and education directorates, then this would be an important achievement and a step toward moving the headquarters of the government inside [Syria].”

Agreement with factions

Moving the headquarters of the government to the interior requires “an agreement with the factions in Idlib as well as international help to protect the government,” according to Touma.

However, these targets seem elusive. As far as the first point is concerned, Abdullah Mhaisni, a Saudi member of the Sharia Committee in the “Army of Conquest,” rushed to tweet: “It is not true that the coalition entered the city of Idlib and took over the management of its areas! There are men who shed their blood on the soil of Idlib and entered the city, and they shall rule it and manage its affairs through the laws of God.”

But Touma stressed that “the government has an excellent relationship with all the factions in Idlib, and it is not true that Jabhat al-Nusra refused our entry. It is actually a leader who rejected our entry and it is his right to express his opinion. We noticed during our work that not a single faction that currently represents the Army of Conquest attacked us. Moreover, Jabhat al-Nusra did not attack our relief convoys or our education or health work. The person talked about his point of view and did not issue any public statement in this regard. No one told us that it is forbidden for us to enter. On the contrary, the local councils, battalions, groups, citizens and revolutionary forces on the ground want the government to provide services to the people.”

Hanano statue destroyed; Idlib “an Islamic emirate?”

One of the indicators worrying Syrian public opinion the most, and raising concerns over the “Idlib Islamic emirate,” is the destruction of the statue of Syrian activist Ibrahim Hanano. Some said that fighters mistakenly destroyed it when they thought that it was the statue of Hafez al-Assad. Meanwhile, others stressed that the statue was destroyed as there is an Islamic militant doctrine that rejects the existence of statues. [This doctrine] is similar to ones within IS, which destroyed the Mosul Museum.

Touma commented on this matter and said, “There are two possibilities; the statue was either destroyed because it was taken for an Assad statue or due to a militant act, especially considering that there is a plate at the bottom of the statute stating the name of the person in question.” He added that “this is very sad and negative because Hanano raised the torch of freedom in the face of every power that tried to force us into slavery, and we call on the international community to cooperate for the management of Idlib in order to avoid a scenario similar to Raqqa.”

Touma stressed that “the international community’s delay in supporting us to manage Raqqa at that time paved the way for extremist forces to infiltrate into the city and make the people suffer.”

Touma added, “the Ahrar al-Sham movement” and “Jabhat al-Nusra” rushed to deny any intention to form an emirate in Idlib. However, Jabhat al-Nusra’s Emir Abu Mohammad al-Golani indirectly criticized the Syrian coalition in a recorded statement. He said that “the pursuit of the West is a pursuit of a mirage.” Golani described them as “Western agents” without naming them.

He said, “We confirm that we do not seek to rule the city. We only want the city to be in good hands. Sharia will be applied, the Shura spread. We stress the need to maintain the public property and facilities and the return of employees to their jobs in order to take advantage of the available cadres in the city. A committee shall be formed to make sure that the needs of the people are met and to accelerate the establishment of a legitimate court among the people.” Such talk does not suggest an approval of the government’s entry to Idlib.

Asked if he fears Idlib becoming an Islamist extremist city, Touma answered, “Not all the factions in Idlib are extremist, but there are those who accept the democratic national project, and our motto is the pluralistic democratic civil state. There are several factions that accept this proposal. The international community has to support us to achieve this project. Otherwise, this province will definitely end up like the other provinces.”

International assistance

The second need consists of protecting the government from regime bombing, which means the imposition of a no-fly zone or supporting the Syrian opposition with anti-aircraft weapons. Some are betting on a Turkish protection of the government in Idlib, but Touma said Turkey did not tackle this matter, but recalled that “the interim government is based in the Turkish [city of] Gaziantep, and the Turkish are excited about the establishment of a safe area. About seven months ago, they put forward the establishment of a safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border to stretch along 48 kilometers [30 miles] in order for the government to move there and manage it with the Syrian brothers. We support this idea and call on the international community to assist Turkey to implement this plan.”

Touma emphasized, however, that “the presence of the government in Idlib implies the need to prevent the regime from shelling citizens and headquarters with diabolical explosive barrels. This is our only concern.”

Operation Decisive Storm in Syria

Touma said that “the amount of pain and anguish that we recently suffered from, especially after we were besieged by the Iranian dagger [the Iranian crescent that goes from Iran to the Mediterranean] from the north and the south, led us to a critical situation whereby a courageous decision was needed. This decision was taken in Yemen through [the Saudi-led] Operation Decisive Storm in order "to break this Iranian siege.”

“The rebound effect and high morale after the announcement of Operation Decisive Storm had a good effect in Idlib and the regime collapsed in a matter of days. Also, the combat forces joined hands to liberate the city,” he added.

Touma called for “an Operation Decisive Storm in Syria as the international community will not help us enough if the Arabs do not stand with us. Four years ago, it was the fury of people. Today, it is the wrath of the leaders.”

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