Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On the Syrian Interim Government

The Syrian opposition has managed to elect an interim prime minister for a Syrian government in exile. This is a positive move albeit one which will be controversial in opposition circles, already accusations of Islamism are being levelled against Mr Ghassan Hitto who is relatively unknown in Syrian political circles. I'll say a word on that later. Here is a clip of him at a demonstration last year (English) in support of the children of Syria.

In terms of credentials I've heard that he's worked in IT and has been an executive manager of some sort in Texas for the past eleven years. He has also worked his way up through grass roots efforts in aid of the revolution and appears to be an eloquent and confident speaker. Like Muaz al Khatib, he appears to be a good candidate that is acceptable to all currents in the opposition but this will not make the challenge ahead of him any easier.

Some might wonder whether Muaz al Khatib, the charismatic head of the Syrian National Coalition, would not have made a better interim prime minister. I think that the emergence of more credible political figures is crucial for a democratic and pluralist Syria. What we as Syrians need to move beyond is the idea of a "saviour" figure or leader. A future Syria must have empowered and competent political figures from all political spectrums, Islamist as well as secular, who can differ and compete politically so long as there is a commitment to Syrian law and democratic principles. It might have taken years for such figures to emerge, but it is better in the long term that more figures like Hitto are empowered and included into the body politic of Syria. For far too long politics has been seen as inaccessible and abstract by Syrians, and when average people start to become stakeholders in the running of the country, it becomes less likely that totalitarianism will take hold.

Immediate Challenges

His immediate concern as head of an interim government is to create a credible body that can sustain itself and take over where the National Coalition has left off. It will be trying to assume the Syria seat at the Arab League and drawing up a list of priorities for the coming year, as well as a suitable post-Assad transition plan. Crucially, Mr Hitto will have to develop ties with whatever is left of the Free Syrian Army and start working on turning it into a credible national army. To do that he will also have to address human rights abuses by some of its members properly and effectively. It all rests on who he appoints as an interim defence minister for this government.

Hitto will also have to work extra hard to prove that he is not just a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, as some people are already claiming him to be, and this will mean he has to take a less harder line with former regime members who wish to negotiate or be rehabilitated.

Perhaps his biggest challenge will be in setting up a Syrian administration in the growing liberated areas of the country. To do this he will have to move his government to the ground, and this means becoming an instant target for the regime. This is something he might seriously be considering, especially as his own son is on the ground assisting aid efforts and he has already left his job to help with the revolution. Should he manage to get an actually existing Syrian government on Syrian soil then he will be performing the crucial job of delivering a measure of stability to the beleaguered Syrians, and helping with eliminating the growing lawlessness and Islamic extremism that has appeared in the vacuum.

Crucial to all of this, again, is how effective and committed the Free Syrian Army will be in protecting this government. And crucial to the Free Syrian Army is how well armed it is. The influx of Croatian weapons and the renewed willingness by France and Britain to arm Syria's rebels could be in conjunction with this latest move, and the success or failure of this next step now lies with them. Western foreign policy towards the Syrian revolution has been timid to lukewarm, and Hitto will have to demonstrate very early on that his government can deliver results before a fickle foreign office adviser in Paris or London starts to pull the plug on the arms.

Securing Western Aid and the Importance of Human Rights

Two things can help the interim government gain international credibility. Transparency of government and a clamp on corruption will be the first and dominating principle, and secondly a commitment to human rights and democratic principles. Hitto can publish the monthly budget of his government, showing the world, and more importantly Syrians, what money is going in and what is going out of this government. He can also reach out to the Local Coordination committees and build legitimacy on the ground for his government, and allow towns and villages to govern themselves through their own elections and committees and have a say in how his government makes decisions that affect them.

Secondly, the issue of human rights abuses. Not only are field executions and torture illegal and morally undermine the revolution, they make fighting the Assad regime even more difficult. If soldiers that are fighting for Assad know that they will not be tortured or executed, then they will be much more eager to surrender at the earliest opportunity. During the second world war German soldiers fighting for the dying Third Reich did everything in their power to surrender to Western armies than to the Soviets. On the Eastern front the soldiers fought to the death when they realized they were fighting a losing war. By enforcing a commitment to international law and human rights Hitto will be helping shorten the conflict and saving lives, as well as laying the groundwork for what a post-Assad Syria will look like. Making flimsy counter-accusations whenever there is evidence of rebel human rights abuses, or justifying such behaviour on the grounds that the country is at war, will make his government look weak and increase the likelihood that his government will not gain the international support, and more importantly arms, that he desperately needs. This point cannot be emphasized enough.

The Carrot and Stick Approach

But an interim Syrian government cannot do this alone. Assistance and advice, as well as a firm commitment to see it succeed, must be provided by the international community. Much can be done to bolster this interim government by giving it the resources to help Syrians in refugee camps abroad, and providing desperately needed services and security to those still in Syria. For all its divisions and controversy, the Syrian opposition has proven itself to be somewhat responsive to criticism. In this way they are no different to any other government in the democratic world, and this carrot and stick approach can be used not only today, to ensure their commitment to human rights and democracy, but also in future by the Syrian people themselves, to ensure accountability and a lack of corruption. Unlike Assad's regime, the Syrian oppositions can, albeit kicking and screaming, be forced to deliver and organize for the good of the country, and this fact should be capitalized on.

The outlook for Syria is already very bleak so Hitto has a big job ahead of him. Still, and in spite of all these challenges, an interim government can make a very real difference if Hitto focuses on what he can control as opposed to what he can't. Undoubtedly the regime and its supporters will do everything possible to eliminate this alternative, but he doesn't need to make their jobs easier by falling into the same pitfalls as his predecessors. Committing Syria's interim government to democracy and an unwavering adherence to human rights will, however difficult to implement, strengthen and not undermine the new Syria we all want. If he realizes this fact, then we are already half way there.

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