Syria Rebels Seek Premier-in-Waiting as U.S. Steps Up Help

Syrian opposition groups are debating who should head a provisional government as they prepare for an Istanbul meeting to announce their first formal alternative to President Bashar al-Assad’s administration.

Abdelbaset Sieda, a former head of the Syrian National Council, the biggest faction in the coalition that’s meeting in Istanbul, said his group will submit three candidates at the meeting. The prime minister will be chosen “preferably by consensus” rather than through a vote, he said.

It’s not clear when the meeting, originally scheduled for March 2, will take place. The coalition said on its Facebook page yesterday that it has been delayed for “logistical reasons.”

The announcement of a transitional government comes as the U.S. and other international backers of the opposition in Syria push for an end to a conflict that began almost two years ago and has left more than 70,000 people dead, according to United Nations estimates.

The U.S., which along with European and Arab League allies, has backed the National Coalition, will provide support to Syrian rebel fighters for the first time, Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday. That will include medical equipment and food though not weapons, as well as $60 million for the National Coalition, Kerry said.

‘Western Hotels’

“This money will either fall into the hands of people who live in the best western hotels and have never been among Syrians or lived their struggles, or it will come into Syria as weapons, bullets and food and medical aid for those who murder and destroy,” Syria’s state-run Tishrin newspaper said today.

French President Francois Hollande, speaking during a visit to Russia, said he hoped for a “political solution” within weeks. Russia, which has ties with Syria dating back to the Soviet era, has sought a role as mediator. In recent weeks, both Assad’s government and opposition groups have signaled their willingness to engage in negotiations, without any sign that they agree on the terms under which talks should take place.

The formation of an alternative government was stipulated in the agreement that led to the establishment of the Syrian National Coalition in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in November. It probably won’t be a “game-changer,” said Anthony Skinner, Middle East director for Maplecroft, a global risk adviser based in the English city of Bath.

Military Training

“What’s likely to be more significant is a potential shift in U.S. policy,” Skinner said. Eventually, that “might see Washington provide the armed opposition with body armor, armored vehicles and possibly military training.”

The uprising against Assad, from the Alawite sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has taken on an increasingly sectarian character, with most of the rebel groups led by Sunni Muslims. Iran, the region’s main Shiite power, supports Assad while Sunni-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are backing the opposition.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern at a Feb. 27 UN conference in Vienna “about the risk of sectarian violence and mass reprisals as the situation continues to worsen.”

No Influence

While the National Coalition has managed to unite some of the main political opponents of Assad, mainly those outside Syria, others on the ground inside the country say the group doesn’t represent them.

“The coalition is a head without a body or soul,” Brigadier-General Mustapha al-Sheikh, one of the first senior officers to defect from the Syrian army, said in an interview from a Syrian post near the Turkish border.

“It doesn’t represent Syria nor does it have any influence over the armed groups on the ground,” he said. “Its members live abroad and have no connection to what’s happening inside the country.”

U.S. officials have expressed concern that some of the main groups fighting against Assad are jihadists. One of them, the Al-Nusra Front, is listed by the State Department as a terrorist group.

Sieda said the main duty of the provisional government will be to administer the areas under opposition control, and it will include a defense ministry that will seek to unite the various armed factions fighting Assad’s troops.

“No government is effective unless it is in real contact with the people on the ground,” said Sieda. “The viewpoint of those inside Syria should be the most heard.”

Disputes among the various rebel factions have been cited by western officials as one reason why pledges of support for the opposition haven’t been matched by concrete action. Skinner said western and Arab powers “may try to use promises of aid as a carrot to force various interest groups to agree on a candidate if such an agreement is evasive.”

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