ROUNDTABLE: Can relocating into Syria build confidence in the opposition’s interim government?

On May 17, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces elected Jawad Abu Hatab as the third president of the opposition’s interim government. He is the first president to move the organization’s headquarters into Syria since the coalition was founded in March 2013.

In its short lifespan, the coalition has cycled through many identities; from an opposition-in-exile mocked for taking Western cash and holding conferences in five-star Turkish hotels to an attempt to re-brand as an inclusive opposition, but one that unfortunately failed to bring the largest Kurdish movements under its umbrella.

Plagued by charges of corruption within, a shadowy Muslim Brotherhood presence and the inevitable calculation that its allies only controlled 2 percent of the ground inside Syria, the coalition seemed at some point to fade into oblivion.

Now, the election of Abu Hatab signals the interim government’s attempts to address widespread criticism of ineffective and out-of-touch governance.

“The interim government…failed the people of Syria,” Ammar Ibrahim, a Latakia-based civilian journalist, tells Syria Direct. “We inside Syria don’t recognize them.”

In the northeast Al-Hasakah province, a local radio personality tells Syria Direct that “regardless of location, the people lack confidence in the [interim] government and in the opposition.”

Since the beginning of the revolution, the Italian-educated President Abu Hatab, a former heart surgeon and dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the Free University of Aleppo, worked in Syria, most recently as the interim government’s director of medical affairs.

Abu Hatab tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim and Bassam al-Dairi that the new interim government inside Syria “is strictly focused on providing services, not on politics.”

“The Syrian people are calling for a government that can provide them with essential services, and we are responding,” says Abu Hatab.

 Jawad Abu Hatab, president of the Syrian opposition’s interim government, speaks at a 2015 press conference. Photo courtesy of Jawad Abu Hatab.

In the roundtable discussion following Abu Hatab’s interview, Syria Direct interviews a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander, a representative from a Syrian civil society organization, a Latakia-based civilian journalist and a local radio personality in Al-Hasakah for their comments on the interim government’s end to self-exile.

Jawad Abu Hatab is the recently elected president of the interim government of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. The organization, which includes a 12-minister cabinet, focuses on reconstruction efforts and supporting civil society organizations across rebel-controlled areas in Syria:

Q: What is the importance of moving the government’s operations into Syria for the first time?

The Syrian people are calling for a government that can provide them with essential services, and we are responding. Providing this support is critical, now more than ever, in this difficult period of the revolution.

This government does not strive to lead the Syrian people politically; rather, it aims to provide services and, in the process, create relevant, supporting organizations.

Q: What dangers do you face in moving the interim government’s headquarters inside Syria?

Even before becoming president, I was working in Syria, through bombs and all.

In coordination with the Free University of Aleppo, I worked in rebel-held and besieged areas as the interim government’s director of medical affairs 

I accepted the presidency as a way of expanding services and working with local organizations. Regardless of the dangers we may face, I will not be selfish with my own personal safety. I will welcome all possible insight and expertise in these efforts to succeed.

Q: What does the interim government hope to accomplish?

I won’t make any flashy promises. I’ll let the work speak for itself. The government will be an executive government, entirely at the service of the Syrian people, and it is strictly focused on providing services, not on politics.

Q: Where will the government offices be located, especially given the intense bombing in northern Syria?

This government is different from those that came before it. It is a grassroots government, which will work with active and influential organizations that are spread out across the rebel-held areas of Syria.

Just look at what we were able to accomplish with our injured in the hospitals. We didn’t tell them we don’t have medicine or medical supplies or equipment. We had to perform operations given the resources we had available. In the process, we were able to save thousands of lives. We owe all of this to the local organizations of the revolution. God willing, we will address whatever else may come up in such a team effort.

Q: Talk about the relationship between your government and the armed factions of the opposition?

Our brothers in arms are our true partners in this land. If we have anyone to fear it’s the planes bombing us, whether they are from the regime or anyone else.

Q: What is the interim government’s budget? How much will you be setting aside for the implementation of your projects and programs?

We seek to be entirely self-funded, reliant on nothing else other than our abilities and our work. Perhaps at the beginning our resources will be limited, but they will surely expand. We are already looking into this matter, and we will begin our pursuit for financial independence. Of course, if we receive outside support, that is great. However, if such support does not come, then the Syrian people will still be able to survive on their own sources of income.

Q: Will the interim government provide employment to Syrians? Will you support the local councils?

Right now, our top priorities are to establish decent medical and educational organizations. Additionally, we aim to support and strengthen local councils on the ground as best we can.

Q: Describe the election? Who participated, and what percentage of the vote did you receive?

I recently offered my resignation from my previous medical work inside Syria.

The elections took place in Istanbul, and I participated via Skype from the Idlib countryside. I received 54 out 98 votes.

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Taha Hayani is a military leader of the FSA 16th Division, which comprises 4,000 members. The division operates in Aleppo and across the province’s countryside:

Q: What does your division think of the decision to move the interim government inside Syria?

Across the board, the decision to move the interim government inside Syria is a positive step. The Syrian people have wanted this to happen, and the interim government is responding to these wishes with the support of friendly countries.

Q: Is the interim government able to impose its authority militarily and bring unity through the General Staff and Ministry of Defense?

Yes, the General Staff and Ministry of Defense have 30 brigades between them throughout Aleppo and Idlib alone. The General Staff coordinates with these forces on the ground. I hope to God that there will be unity under one national Syrian army.

**

An employee with Olive Branch, a Daraa-based civil society organization focused on providing education and psychological support for children, spoke under the condition of anonymity:

Q: What do you think of the decision to move the interim government inside Syria?

Without a doubt, moving the interim government inside Syria is the best possible decision both for the government and for the Syrian people. Now inside the country, the interim government will have a much clearer picture of the issues, concerns and aspirations of the Syrian people. With such proximity, it will be able to better understand the situation on the ground.

Granted, a part of the government must remain abroad in order to communicate with the international community. However, working to find smart solutions inside Syria is more important than simply surviving for the sake of surviving abroad. In order for this to happen, the interim government’s offices must be protected, ideally through an international resolution. Without such a resolution, it will be next to impossible for the interim government to operate effectively on the ground. 

Q: How will Olive Branch assist the interim government in working to meet the goals and wishes of the Syrian people?

It is the goal of civil society organizations to work with those in power, not to take the place of the state. Therefore, as a Syrian organization, we hope first and foremost that there will be peace and an end to the suffering of the Syrian people. In the future, we will maintain our role in working with those in positions of authority, but we do not want to present ourselves as an alternative to anyone.

**

Ammar Ibrahim is an independent citizen journalist working in the Latakia countryside. His reporting centers on documenting regime activity and potential war crimes:

Q: What do you think of the decision to move the interim government into Syria?

We do not want someone from abroad who is removed from the situation on the ground to be representing us, and so we believe that this decision is a positive move.

Q: What do you hope to come of the interim government?

This goes back to the original objectives that the interim government once presented, the goals they promised to realize. However, since the formation of the interim government and the Etilaf, [Ed.: The Arabic name for the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces] they have failed the people of Syria. We inside Syria don’t recognize them.

Q: What do you ask of the interim government?

All that we ask for is security, for our land and for our people. We ask for the promise of complete support in protection from the warplanes that bomb our people on a daily basis. That is all that the Syrian people ask for.

**

Wael Al-Hasakawi is a citizen journalist and radio personality airing on local stations in Al-Hasakah:

Q: What do you think of the decision to move the interim government into Syria?

It’s a positive step. From day one, the people have called on the opposition to operate inside Syria. However, regardless of location, the people lack confidence in the government and in the opposition in general. When the interim government was working from Gazientep, there was rampant corruption and favoritism.

Q: Do you hold this view of the new government because of the errors of the previous government?

It’s not exactly like that. We assume, and surely hope, that the new government will be better than its predecessor. However, never ask a Syrian to trust a political party without having seen the group with his own two eyes. I’ll be realistic, do I think that the interim government can work in Al-Hasakah city and appoint a local council like those in Aleppo and Idlib? In my opinion, given the presence of the PYD, the answer is no. The interim government just doesn’t have that clout, and I recognize that their work will be quite limited in many areas. I’ll say again, however, I really hope that the new interim government proves us wrong.  

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Bassam al-Dairi

Bassam is from Deir e-Zor city. He studied law in Damascus University. He also worked with many international organizations in Jordan. He wants to improve his journalism skills to one day become a professional reporter.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.