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Syria Opposition Tries Again to Pick Prime Minister

Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib leads a two-day general assembly that may select a prime minister to create a shadow government in liberated areas of Syria’s civil war. Shown here at a Munich meeting with donor countries last month. (AP)

Leadership deliberates in Turkey as donors offer direct humanitarian aid for liberated regions, support for ‘murky world’ of armed rebels

Syrians trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad began a two-day meeting in Istanbul on Monday in an attempt to choose an interim prime minister.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is meeting in the Turkish city to consider 12 candidates for the prime ministership. Two previous efforts to choose a prime minister and form an interim government in portions of rebel-held Syria have failed.

“We will see if we choose a prime minister or not,” Coalition spokesman Walid Al-Bunni said last week in announcing today’s meeting. “Some say there is a need, and others say there is no need.”

Some coalition members prefer what they consider a less-confrontational "executive committee" that could foster dialogue with the Assad regime. Under their plan, formation of a government would come later.

The majority say there is a need in order to provide electricity and schools and health care
Walid al-Bunni, Coalition spokesman
But Bunni said most delegates believe they need to move quickly to form a government. “The majority say there is a need in order to provide electricity and schools and health care,” he said.

Among the dozen candidates for prime minister are Salem Al-Meslet, a leader of Syria’s tribal groups; Osama Kadi, an economist previously living in Canada who has been serving the revolution in the Aleppo region for many months: Assad Asheq Mustafa, a former agriculture minister and defector from the regime: and Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-American from Texas who directs the Coalition’s aid coordination program for liberated Syria.

The push to elect an interim government was endorsed over the weekend by Gen. Salim Idriss, the chief of staff of a group of opposition units seeking to improve the effectiveness of the rebel Free Syria Army.

How to serve Syria’s rebel-held regions

Even if the Coalition further delays decisions about its political future, the war and its impact on the people of Syria continue. The United Nations estimates more than 70,000 people have been killed, that millions have been driven from their homes inside Syria and that tens of thousands more have fled the country.

Right now, the amount of aid that is going in to Syria doesn’t even come close
Ghassan Hitto, Coalition aid coordinator
The U.N. is appealing for donations to help those displaced and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged $63 million in direct humanitarian aid for rebel-held areas of Syria.

“Right now, the amount of aid that is going in to Syria doesn’t even come close,” said Hitto, a frontrunner among the 12 candidates and who now directs the Council’s assistance coordination from Turkey. According to the U.N. Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, only about 10 percent of Syria’s humanitarian needs are being met, Hitto said.

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Previously, the United Nations and a dozen non-government organizations conducting aid delivery in Syria could not reach many of the war’s victims because of the violence and Syrian government restrictions placed on their operations. The U.S. humanitarian aid will go directly to rebel-held areas not served by U.N. agencies.

“Over half of the population in the north needs aid,” Hitto says, but notes that the U.N. can operate only through areas under control of the Assad government. “There isn’t a cross-border operation where the U.N. can operate from all borders. “

The U.S. humanitarian funds – which may not be available for another 30 to 60 days – will support the operations of the Coalition and its Aid Coordination Unit offices in Cairo and provide grants for restoration of local public services in rebel-held areas.

Many communities have formed civic councils to restore public services such as lights, water, schools, courts and emergency medical services abandoned by government agencies. The aid from Washington is supposed to help with the purchase of generators, diesel fuel, training to reopen courts of law, and other humanitarian activities.

Where are rebel weapons coming from?

Brian Sayers of the Syrian Support Group in Washington, D.C. considers the U.S. direct aid to rebel-held Syria of major importance. “It’s a paradigm shift,” he said.

When Kerry announced the humanitarian aid in a Rome meeting with 10 other donors, he added that rebel units approved for U.S. aid also would get medical kits and food. At that conference, the rebel Coalition’s chairman, Moaz Al-Khatib, expressed disappointment that weapons weren’t included in the U.S. aid package. Kerry responded that other donors may fill in some of the gaps in aiding the revolution.

Whether that happens may be decided soon. Last Thursday, France and Britain announced would offer military aid to the rebels and proposed a meeting with other European Union nations to consider lifting an arms embargo on Syria.

Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are reported to have been funding weapons purchases in recent months. The distribution of military aid from the Gulf states to Syria’s rebels is “a murky world,” said Sayers, but the rebels’ Free Syrian Army has been a recipient of some of that aid.