The National Coalition (NC) opposition alliance has finally announced its long-awaited provisional government, under the leadership of prime minister Ahmed Toume, a moderate Islamist and long-time dissident from Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. The provisional government will strive to organize life in rebel-held areas, mainly in northern Syria, and it is an important development—but one that will not likely have a major impact on the everyday life of Syrians in the short term.
Its creation comes at a moment in which the NC is increasingly isolated from events on the ground and simultaneously under intense political pressure from Western capitals to attend the Geneva II peace conference. This poses a serious threat to the NC and its role within the Syrian revolution—by pulling it further away from the uprising’s original political demands, while accentuating the strategic, technical, and political cleavages between the internal and external opposition groups. Indeed, many rebel groups have withdrawn support from the NC and refuse to recognize the authority of the transition government.
The risk that the NC will become even more marginalized from the Syrian revolution is certainly not lost on its leadership. This much was acknowledged by Toume in an interview last month in which he acknowledged some of the challenges of bridging the gaps between the NC and Syrian-based groups. It is within this context that the establishment of a provisional government by the NC can be seen, as an attempt to reassert authority, and to demonstrate, from the perspective of its leadership at least, its principal position within the revolution.
Little Reach, Weak Legitimacy, Unclear Funding
However, the provisional government faces administrative and political problems already at its inception. The location of the government in the Turkish town of Gaziantep—not within Syria—will only deepen rifts between the NC and internal opposition groups. The geographic distance will make service provision extremely difficult and will not serve the goal of developing sound and effective governance institutions within the rebel-held areas.
More importantly, however, is the reality that the NC has no clear mandate to govern those areas from the Syrians within them. Furthermore, it was not a positive sign that the NC was not able to elect a full cabinet as three of Toume’s nominations were rejected. The question of whether the government will have legitimacy to govern is a serious one. The physical distance of Toume’s cabinet and its location outside of Syria is unlikely to generate either the legitimacy or capacity to govern in the short-term.
A more technical problem facing the provisional government is a budgetary one, as the government is so far limited to two sources of funding: a pledge of $300 million from the Saudi government and a commitment by the German government to release $600 million of frozen Syrian money in German banks. It is unclear how much of that money will actually arrive in Gaziantep and what, if any, conditions both the German and Saudi governments may place on its distribution. If we are to believe Toume’s claim that the new government will need $300 million per month to cover its expenses, then the government is in serious financial trouble if it can only draw on these two sources. This makes the rather mundane tasks of formulating and implementing policy fraught with financial uncertainty.
Symbolic Step for the Opposition
All of this begs the question as to what role the provisional government can play. Under the circumstances and with little rush from international actors to recognize the new government, it is likely that it will only perform two main roles.
The first is symbolic. The creation of the government signals a post-Assad political possibility that was, until now, unrealistic. The second role is service-oriented: to serve as a conduit for the distribution of services and humanitarian aid that are badly needed in these areas. Such a limited role was openly acknowledged by Monzer Aqbiq, adviser to coalition President Ahmed Jarba, who claimed that “the primary goal of the government will be to ease the living conditions of citizens living in the liberated areas by providing them with services they need on the ground.” But the provisional government will certainly find it difficult to incorporate or overcome existing patterns of informal governance in rebel-held areas within Syria, whether in courts or schools. Service provision is important, but governments should govern too. Unfortunately, at this point, the transitional government does not seem to have the capacity to do so.
With the declaration of transitional autonomous authority in the Kurdish regions this week as well, Syria has no less than three different governing bodies that claim authority over different parts of the country. While all of them claim to work for the unity and sovereignty of the Syrian republic, the effect could well be further disintegration.