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Syrian National Coalition PM on New Cabinet, Geneva, and Al-Qaeda - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Syrian interim Prime Minister Ahmad Tomah in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Syrian interim Prime Minister Ahmad Tomah in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat—Dogged by accusations that it is out of touch with activists and fighters on the ground in Syria, the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has long struggled to assert itself as the legitimate representative of the opponents of Bashar Al-Assad’s government.

In response, it has been seeking to form an interim government to administer the areas that have been captured from—or ceded by—Assad’s forces. The last man appointed by the Coalition to spearhead this project government, Ghassan Hito, resigned in July after being unable to form a cabinet amid infighting within the Coalition.

Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to his replacement, Ahmad Tomeh, who was elected as interim prime minister by the Coalition’s members in mid-September. A dentist by training, Tomeh, 48, hails from the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, and is a veteran opposition activist who was imprisoned for signing the Damascus Declaration of 2005.

Asharq Al-Awsat: How far are you into forming the interim government?

Ahmad Tomeh: One of the main tasks of the prime minister is to consult with all blocs. There are three main principles we will adhere to. First, we will not exclude any of the blocs associated with the Syrian National Coalition, even some of the blocs and individuals that did not vote for us. There is nothing wrong with that given that we want to form as much government that works by consensus as much as possible. We want to keep up the same positive spirit that we had on the day I was selected [as prime minister] when I gained 75 votes, with only 10 against and 12 abstentions. The percentage is very positive. And if we can reflect this atmosphere when forming the government, there will be positive results on the performance of the government and the future of the Coalition and the Syrian revolution.

Secondly, the representation of as much of the spectrum of Syrian society in the government as possible, so that every Syrian citizen, regardless of their affiliation, will feel that the government represents them. As for the third principle, it pertains to the issue of qualifications. We are seeking to achieve a balance so that every bloc or group nominates the best of its members. Deliberations in this regard are on-going.

On the level of deliberations, we intend to meet with the Coalition’s member groups. And we have met with a good few local councils. The deliberations will include civil society committees and groups which we believe will play an important role in helping the government achieve its objectives via communicating with people, because we want to be as close as possible to people, sharing their dreams and pain. Achieving our aims is commensurate with how close we are to people. We want the Syrian people to feel that their decision to carry out the Syrian revolution is the most important decision they have ever taken. Helping improve [the Syrian people’s] living conditions will reflect their steadfastness.

The fourth side we sought to communicate with were the military bodies—namely, the battalions and brigades on the ground. We even sought to communicate with the bodies that signed the statement to withdraw confidence from the Coalition and the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) General Command. Therefore, we met with the Syrian Islamic Front days ago. We put forward our point of view and listened to theirs on why they signed that statement. In general, I do not oppose the statement and I believe some of their demands are legitimate and should be taken into consideration. Among these demands were that we should communicate with those inside Syria, and this is a legitimate demand which we welcome.

We asked all of the blocs we met, whether groups or individuals, to nominate Syria-based figures because we have a greater desire to increase the number of the Syria-based members of the cabinet. We told them that their objections to us and the Coalition express the sad reality they are facing. We have fears about the future of the Syrian revolution, particularly since the Geneva 2 conference has been put on the table. Some believe that accepting Geneva 2 is to surrender to the regime. On the contrary, I personally believe the provisions of Geneva 2, in general, favor of the opposition.

However, we have two fears: First, that the regime will not implement the resolutions; second, we do not know exactly what will happen in the future. The terms of the agreement is in favor of the opposition, particularly the term stipulating that the “interim governing body will have full powers, including security, military, finance, media and all state institutions.” If things will be like this, the terms will have some positive aspects in principle. The question then arises: Will the departure of Bashar Al-Assad be agreed upon from the beginning of the negotiations? Or will it be, as both Russia and US have argued, reached at the end of the negotiations?

We have been advised by some politicians and bodies that support the Syrian revolution not to accept unless we are told on the first day of the conference that Geneva 2 will end with Assad’s departure. This is similar to the political transition process in Yemen where it was announced from day one that the negotiations would lead to the removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Q: When do you expect to announce the government given that the Coalition will have an extensive meeting on October 25 to vote?

Consultations are underway and we are making genuine progress. I suppose, God willing, the names will be ready one week before the Coalition’s meeting.

Q: You mean after the Eid Al-Adha holiday?

Yes, and I will submit the names for the Coalition to vote on in its meeting on October 25.

Q: Statistically speaking, how much of the government is ready?
I do not want to go into details regarding this issue.

Q: Under the initial agreement, each bloc is to nominate five candidates for you to choose from.

This is true as far as the [FSA’s] General Command is concerned. They will put up five candidates for the ministry of defense and five for the ministry of interior. As for the rest of the blocs, it is a matter of consensus and it depends on consultation and nominations.

Q: Will the interior minister be a civilian figure?

Both of the defense and interior ministers will be civilians. And this is a principle we want to establish in the future Syria where the ministries of defense and interior should adopt a civil approach as is the case in the civilized countries where democracy is well-established.

Q: What is expected from this government?

The main point is to consolidate the people’s steadfastness, meet their demands and improve their living conditions. We need to provide people with the basic services, such as water and electricity, as well as security and stability. There are two highly important issues: Health and education. The health situation in Syria during the era of the Assad regime has been in a state of chaos and a failure on all levels, as has education.

We want to reconstruct all of the buildings damaged and destroyed as a result of the shelling. We also want to restore all the professionals that the regime displaced. Furthermore, we want to promote the participation of the civil society in Syria’s future political arena.

We want to establish a democratic country with a civil and pluralistic state that open to all points of view. All people have the right to express and defend their points of view, as well as have institutions capable of preparing the future political arena.

We want the supremacy of law and separation of powers. We also want to have an independent and just judiciary and for Syrians to have dignified lives.

Q: Have you received any promises of financial aid for the government to be able to operate effectively in the near future?

Yes, to some extent. However, I do not want disclose information on this issue as it will cause controversy. We will announce [the promises] once the government has been formed.

Q: How much money does the government need to operate effectively?

Initially, we suppose that the government will need USD 300 million per month to be truly able to fulfill its duties. Grants and aid from the friends of the Syrian people will cover some of the expenses. As for the remaining part, do not forget that Syria is rich in natural resources and it has oil wells and wheat and cotton as well as other products.

Q: How far are you able to operate on the ground, in the light of the existence of forces that accept neither you nor the regime?

There are major difficulties and challenges, but they are not larger than the Syrian people’s decision to carry out the revolution. I am a former political prisoner and aware of what was going on. I remember in 2005 when we signed Damascus Declaration, or even before that, people used to say: “Where are you going, idiots? Does anyone have the courage to demand democracy in Syria?”

When we were being tried for signing the Damascus Declaration, we said in the courtroom that article eight in the constitution—which states that “The leading party in the society and the state is the Socialist Arab Baath Party”—must be amended, lawyers used to feel pity for us, wondering how one can demand the amendment of an article that will risk him 15 years of imprisonment.

The regime offered us fake reforms but people refused as they would only improve the conditions of their slavery rather than achieve freedom.

Q: Did the international community disappoint you?

Definitely, the international community let us down and it is sad to be in such a situation. I have already informed several international sides that any delay in finding a political solution will open the door to major problems in the future, including extremism and radicalism. I have always said that tyrants bring invaders and extremists.

Q: Do you mean that Syrians have to choose between either extremism or the regime?

Is this what we wanted to have? At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, people chanted slogans demanding civil state, democracy, freedom, release of prisoners and better living conditions. Extremism has never been on the table.

Q: How is it possible for Syria to overcome the issue of extremism, which some use as a scarecrow, and others hold up as a reason not to intervene?

It all starts with an international resolution. In fact, if the international community decides to end and solve the Syrian crisis, we will reach a solution.

Q: How can an international resolution defuse the problem of extremists in Syria?

If the international community decided to solve the Syrian problem during its early months, we would not have been in this situation. At the time, the international community knew what would happen and offered us advice.

If an international decision to solve the Syrian crisis were to be taken now, we would be able…to run the government efficiently and thus win back more than three quarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) supporters. We are convinced that most of them joined the organization out of destitution and poverty.

Until today, these groups did not enjoy popular support. I believe these extremist groups were established on ideological principles. I entered into discussions with extremist groups before I came to Turkey. We told them you have two choices: Either to force your ideas on people or to accept the ballot box.

If we want the Islamic world to advance, the first step we have to take is to put weapons aside. Therefore, I have always been accused of leaning towards nonviolence and peaceful resistance.

Q: When did you leave Syria?

Around four months ago.

Q: Where were you based in Syria following the eruption of the Syrian revolution?

At the beginning I was in Deir Ezzor. Then, I was arrested twice on the background of interviews I had. After the awful events in Deir Ezzor, it was no longer possible to stay there and thus I had to move, along with 500 residents, to Hasaka and Raqqa where we stayed for months.

Q: Once it is formed, will the government operate within Syria?

Mainly it will operate within Syria. As I said we want to be very close to the people, taking into consideration the security situation. We do not want to lose any of the ministers, heads of administrations or members of the cabinet. Because we are in a state of emergency, we can take emergency steps. That is, it is not necessary to have permanent headquarters and we will be based at the nearest spot to the Syrian interior at temporary bases.

This interview was originally conducted in Arabic, and can be read here.