The internationally recognized opposition has been plagued by infighting, incompetency and accusations of corruption since its inception.
Protesters chanting slogans and carrying Syrian revolutionary flags during a demonstration in Kafar Souseh, Damascus, Syria. Four years later, the activists’ goals are eclipsed in a conflict many believe has become a choice between rule by Assad and rule by ISIS.
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Four years after Syria’s revolution began, its political opposition-in-exile has little to show for it.
Half-heartedly propped up by foreign governments, the Turkey-based Interim Government is going broke, and on the brink of collapse.
Khaled, a senior opposition official, is tired and depressed. We meet at a Gaziantep restaurant, in one of its three shiny malls popular for out of office meetings. It’s just down the road from the government building, which faces frequent security alerts.
He speaks frankly, seemingly relieved to get his frustrations off his chest. In his mid-30s, he’s the antithesis of the old guard that has taken the reigns of the political opposition, and is sick of pretending.
“We’re fake. We’re a lie — an illusion. We’re not a real government,” he sighs.
“Ministers think that just because someone opens a door for them that they are real… but we have zero legitimacy. We do not represent the people and don’t provide enough services.”
The illusion is convincing — the Turkey-based government has around 500 employees in addition to its teams in Syria. It produces sleek reports, holds press conferences in fancy hotels and capacity-building workshops at seaside resorts.
In the months after the revolution took hold, defectors and prominent opposition figures formed an opposition-in-exile, one that would in theory run Syria in a transitional period after the eventual fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But its technocratic ministers face vehement criticism for spending more time vying for power than running effective projects on the ground.
The budget runs dry
Frequent elections ensure the politicians are always on the look out for friends. More than one gathering of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces has ended in disaster as members accuse each other of representing either Saudi Arabia or Qatar, whose competition for control of the opposition has been an open secret since its inception.
The lengthy and altogether distracting disputes have caused more than one leader to fall from favor or resign in frustration. The Interim Government’s first prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, a professional IT executive living in Texas, lasted just a few months, as did Muaz al-Khatib the first president of the Coalition itself.
“It is on the shoulders of the coalition to approve this government and let us get down to business,” Hitto told me just two days before he was asked to resign as prime minister in July 2013. “It is completely unacceptable, and Syrians should not accept this status or situation of inaction.”
And while successes include big-scale infrastructure projects to repair and maintain water and electricity in Syria, they are vastly expensive and have failed to stir up much enthusiasm.
The little authority they had garnered by paying the salaries of teachers or doctors or some local administrators in Syria ran out the same time as the money.
Government employees say the budget simply ran dry at the end of last year after an annual $53 million stipend from Qatar was not renewed. The opposition has zero independent income — lucrative oil fields in Syria are controlled by the Islamic State and the idea of an already unpopular government-in-exile taxing the people is unthinkable.
But the lack of money is just the latest of the government’s problems. Established in 2013, it has been plagued by infighting, incompetency and accusations of corruption since its inception.
It is derided by many of the people it seeks to represent — among both the millions of refugees and the people still inside the sliver of opposition-held territory in northern Syria.
Each time an initiative is posted on the government’s Facebook pages to highlight achievements; detractors quickly attack it and vent their frustration. The latest post announced the supply of orthopedic equipment to Binesh Hospital, in a town in eastern Idlib province.
“May God not reward you. You dogs! I’m wondering how much you stole from our backs,” spit one commenter named Abu Ratib. He’s joined by an Abu Khaled Muhammad, who followed up bluntly: “It’s time for you to go fuck off. What the hell! You’re only good for fraud and theft.”
One forlorn contributor desperately tried to use the forum to get in touch with his government, “I wish you would reply to my comment, there is an area in rural Deraa and we’ve needed an electricity generator for nine months. What’s the solution?”
A revolution against the revolution
It’s not an easy reputation to defend, although the Syrian Coalition, the opposition’s executive branch, does its best.
“All of our reports say the government tries to do good things, but sometimes they make mistakes and mismanagement,” Vice President Dr. Hisham Marwah told GlobalPost. “There is no intention for corruption.”
But he can’t deny the mistakes have come thick and fast.
The government’s finance minister, for example, is on leave and can’t come into the office, after failing to be reelected to his post. He sends his staff orders from home and has no replacement.
And in September last year at least 15 children died after being given fatal doses of an incorrectly mixed measles vaccine through an ACU and Health Ministry immunization campaign, according to the World Health Organization.
The sense of depression is palpable. Stories swirl of young activists self-medicating with freely available alcohol and the marijuana that drifts across the border. Many have lost friends and family to the carnage, or are separated from them after fleeing the regime, or Al Qaeda, or the Islamic State. The list of groups that Syrians working with the official opposition must run from grows year by year.
There are some hopeful new arrivals in Gaziantep that see the opposition government as a chance to continue their revolution, to help finish what was started.
“I had three job offers with NGOs here when I came,” Ahmad, who came to Turkery four months ago, told GlobalPost. “But I chose to work for the Interim Government because I thought that’s how I could best serve my country and the revolution.”
Ahmad came to Turkey after covertly documenting Islamic State and regime abuses for an independent organization. He is a recent arrival compared to his colleagues.
“Now I do nothing, literally nothing and spend most of my day on Facebook because I don’t get given anything to do.
“We need a revolution against the revolution.”
No plan B
Hundreds of activists have left Syria and restarted their lives in Gaziantep, working on relatively lucrative contracts with International NGOs.
“I don’t blame them — but the activists left and now we need people inside Syria,” reasons Khaled, the senior opposition figure, saying he too would like to return.
The notion is admirable, though now inconceivable, with the safety of government officials from the people it supposedly represents far from guaranteed.
It’s also uncertain where new funding for the opposition government will come from. According to Western government officials, the international community does not have a Plan B. US and European governments have refused to fund the Interim Government with cold, hard cash, leaving Qatar as the only state to step forward. There is no news on when the next infusion might come. Syrian employees may do well to update their CVs.
“We are not 100 percent when the funding is coming and if it’s from our supporters or business people or the Friends Of Syria,” says Dr. Hisham, the Syrian Coalition vice President.
“I think we’re going to hear soon but they have to find a way to reform and restructure their system and the body of the government. Either way, a lot of employees will have to leave.”