Since the beginning of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian opposition has been plagued by infighting and division, both between radical Islamists and moderates, and within the ranks of the self-confessed moderates themselves.
The latter has been played out most visibly within the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group which includes many of the most prominent of the country’s opposition groups. In July, the group voted to dismiss the interim government it had set up to administer territory captured from the regime, along with its prime minister, Ahmad Toumeh, in a no-confidence vote.
The decision was prompted by Toumeh’s move the month before to dismantle the Supreme Military Council, which oversees the military wing of the Coalition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a decision that was overturned by Coalition President Ahmad al-Jarba. However, some members of the Coalition had a number of other gripes with Toumeh’s government, frustrated by its lack of progress in moving the interim government’s operations and ministries into liberated areas of Syria, and accusing him of being too close to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
But Toumeh survived the crisis and was reinstated a month later, with a mandate to form a new government and speed up the movement of operations into Syria. A former dentist by profession and self-proclaimed “moderate Islamist,” Toumeh began his political opposition work in the 1990s when former president Hafez al-Assad was in power. He was elected as prime minister of the opposition interim government in September 2013. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Toumeh about the no-confidence vote and his subsequent reinstatement, the allegations linking him with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, the government’s plans to move operations into northern Syria, and plans to form a “Syrian national army,” a standing army to replace the Assad regime’s forces.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What does it mean for you that you were re-elected after your government was removed?
Ahmad Toumeh: The Syrian National Coalition’s decision to enact a motion of no-confidence with respect to my first government came after deliberations lasting two days, during which the government showcased its policies and achievements. We presented reports on our achievements as they were and without any embellishment or falsification, and these are fairly good achievements considering the limited resources at our disposal, since the government only received 65 million US dollars from its presumed budget of 2 billion dollars. This [small amount], constituting just 3.25% [of the total], came from friendly donor countries, and was the reason why our achievements appeared very modest, especially with respect to the needs of the Syrian people, half of whom have been made homeless in their country, 60% of which has been destroyed.
I think my colleagues in the Coalition wanted to send a number of messages that day through the no-confidence motion. The first of these was that there is no room for any slowdown [in our work] . . . whatever the reasons; [second], that there is no room for weakness in leadership; [and third], that the government must look to find ways of expanding its resources, speed up the process of having an internal presence [i.e. in Syria], and lift the barriers [blocking this]. During consultations over the election of a new prime minister my team and I presented a vision which takes into account the concerns expressed by my colleagues in the Coalition, and this was enough to regain their trust. I am well aware all this will create more challenges for me and my team in the new government, because the Coalition only made these two decisions—the vote of no-confidence and then reinstating the government, which [merely] constitute a cabinet reshuffle in line with the latest developments—out of their concern over the plight of the Syrian people . . . The new government needs to be more competent in terms of management and to achieve greater consensus among all political actors, and this is what we are aiming for.
Q: But there are those currently in the Coalition who are threatening to walk out in protest over what they call the Muslim Brotherhood’s “intransigence,” and their alleged support for you . . .
Toumeh: I assure you I have never been part of any political party throughout my entire life, and I have no special relationship with one party at the expense of other parties. I will continue to ensure my relations [with political parties] are balanced in the coming period, as I have been trying to do throughout the previous period, through my broad, diverse government. I will not accept being labeled as being part of this or that party rather than another, nor will I accept any accusations of bias; my performance in no way indicates that this is the case.
I think those who are angry about the re-election [of my government] have a right to express this anger in democratic ways, and I believe that what happened here is certainly not outside the democratic context, without paying attention to who voted for or against me. The Coalition has not until now witnessed any walkouts or resignations; there were just some blocs who were sticking to their guns on the issue of the new government and abstained from the vote. But let us not forget that 65 out of 110 members of the Coalition voted to elect the new government last week, and I was able to get votes from 63 of them—that is, 57% of the Coalition, with 40.9% of members abstaining from the vote. In comparison, 66 members out of 117 [some members later resigned, bringing the total number of members to 110] voted on the no-confidence motion last Ramadan [July], and the result came out as 56.4% in favor of removing the government, with 43.6% abstaining from the vote that day. So the removal of the government and its reinstatement were [both] carried out in a democratic fashion.
I hope we can put all of this behind us now and unite in standing by the government and coordinating its work with that of the Syrian National Council, in order to serve the revolution and the Syrian people, and move forward in building the Syria of the future.
Q: Is it true the “Qatar factor” was decisive in getting you re-elected as prime minister?
I really do wonder at this kind of speculation. I have every confidence that whenever my colleagues in the Coalition vote or elect someone, they do so only out of patriotism, working to achieve what they see as best for our people.
As for all this talk about foreign influence, well, it eschews reason entirely, because friendly countries who support the Syrian revolution [and who are accused of interference], are constantly talking about how they stand at the same distance from everyone else; and when asked about their stance, they reiterate their non-interference in our affairs.
We are seeing from all our friends, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Turkey, positions which show they support the Syrian revolution [as a whole], and not just one person; and I have thanked all of them. During my re-election speech, I said that without the financial support offered by Qatar, the logistical support offered by our brothers from . . . Saudi Arabia, and [the support of] Turkey and the UAE, we would not have succeeded during this time of war . . .
Q: What would you say were your mistakes during the last government, and how will you rectify them? Also, what would you say are your achievements so far as a government, and how do you plan on building on them?
There is no doubt our work had something of the whiff of failure and imperfection about it, leaving aside whether this can be excused or not. We are aware of the need for us to develop and to take advantage of every form of assistance available to us to achieve this. But it must be borne in mind that taking back a country that has been completely lost is more difficult than running a country that is stable. One of the most prominent things we must work to avoid is relying totally on foreign assistance . . . The other issue is that of our working from within Syria. One of the things that could be said to be part of our achievements [in the last government] is that 75% of our civil servants are based in Syria, from the north of the country to the south. Our brave men and women are putting themselves in great personal danger every day in order to provide the basic services needed by Syrians in many places . . .
We also succeeded in employing some of the best young professionals—despite the low wages offered—and in employing some former civil servants and government officials. And I am proud to say we are employing both men and women in our government without any discrimination whatsoever.
In order to achieve our goal of building a civil, democratic, diverse Syria enjoying full transparency and governed by the rule of law, we must build on what we have achieved and be receptive toward [the lessons of] our failures.
Q: Why all these disagreements within the Coalition? Don’t you feel these disagreements of yours are simply a luxury the Syrian people cannot afford right now?
The disagreements are natural in a political environment that has been born out of nothing, after it was destroyed by a corrupt, tyrannical regime over a period of half a century. Opposition politicians are getting to know one another in a very difficult environment, into which all of them have been thrown under heavy pressure to offer something to ease the burden on our people and achieve our goals. What is happening right now is that there are simply disagreements regarding how these goals can be achieved. But I agree with you that the continuation and deepening of these disagreements . . . make them a luxury the Syrian people cannot afford right now. For this reason I remind myself [of this problem regularly], and call on all my brothers and sisters in the Coalition to come together and cooperate. We [the government] are ready to cooperate, and we hope everyone else [within the Coalition] is likewise willing to do so.
Q: Where will you be working on the ground in Syria, especially in light of the gains being made by extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front?
We have for some time now been having talks with the FSA regarding the services which the [opposition] government provides within Syria, and the civil work carried out by domestic councils, in addition to the work carried out by defense brigades in defending our citizens in the face of the Assad regime’s barbarity and the terrorism of ISIS. We have a vision that seeks to transform these brigades into a precursor to a [post-Assad Syrian] national army under the jurisdiction of the [opposition’s] Ministry of Defense. I hope that we can soon move the [opposition] ministries into Syria, as has already happened with some of them, where domestic administrations were formed in liberated areas. As for the threat of terrorism, it is real, and it is our responsibility to confront it.
Q: Is there a specific vision for this “national army”?
After the safe zone is established it must be run by the interim Syrian government; this is what we are aiming for. I believe the establishment of a national army is more than necessary for safeguarding the revolution. The idea is not really new but we have found some difficulties in applying it, most prominently that of the issue of funding, especially since promises have been made in this regard.
Q: What is the relationship between you and your government and the Islamic Front [a loose coalition of Islamist groups fighting Assad and ISIS and allied with the FSA]?
We appreciate all the efforts of the brigades which are taking part in the fight against the [Assad] regime, whether they are affiliated with the FSA or not. But our relationship with all of them derives from the necessity of working to establish a free, civil, democratic Syria; we do not accept any other goals for our revolution. For this reason we have asked all groups to abandon their different slogans and to join the Syrian national army [which the Coalition plans to form], which will form the core of Syria’s next [standing] army, and which various countries, such as Saudi Arabia—whom we thank—will help train and prepare, and which will be accountable to the Ministry of Defense and the interim government.
Q: Do you think you will be able to shift operations to Syria soon, and is the creation of a safe zone a solution to the problems you have been having with regards to this?
We plan to move operations into Syria within four months, and we are working in earnest to achieve this. As for the safe zone, our people have been demanding this for three years now, in light of the transgressions committed by the regime in our liberated areas, as it continues to launch rockets and drop bombs and barrel bombs and explosives of all kinds. We are working on convincing all our allies to agree to the establishment of the safe zone in order to protect our families and our institutions. We hope this happens within the next four months.
Q: Is there any hope for the Syrian people that this conflict will be resolved after nearly four agonizing, brutal years?
Yes, absolutely; there is much hope here. I am fully aware of how truly great the suffering has been, and the prolonging of this crisis has resulted in unbearable tragedy. However, I am by nature an optimist and I am accustomed to seeing the glass as half full. It is enough to point out that Bashar al-Assad has been truly put in his place, as he has been labeled a war criminal, and he will not remain as president of Syria, which he has destroyed and lost control of one-third of its territory.
Q: What will you do to help solve the problems experienced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon, especially in light of the reduction in assistance from the UN?
This is one of the most important issues we are trying to solve at the moment. They [the refugees] are our children and family, but we don’t want to impose on our brothers in Lebanon, since they already have enough of their own problems and social and economic difficulties to deal with. The Lebanese people have been generous [in their help to Syrian refugees], and we want to ease their burdens. If the safe zone is established we will work to move some of the refugees from Lebanon to that area.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.