Asharq Al-Awsat: Many Syrians in the liberated areas of the country complain about the absence of the Syrian National Coalition or the interim government that it heads. What are you doing to respond to the basic needs of these people?
Ahmed Touhmeh: Since the government was formed, and perhaps even before that, we began studying the feasibility of implementing our plans on the ground. We evaluated the reality on the ground and found that we require a large amount of information about what is going on both in terms of the concentration of military forces and the interactions that take place between various parties. The economic and social situation is important to analyze as well.
We put in place an emergency plan in order to begin our work. It is based on domestic communication and aims to compile information that we can use to identify means to supervise border crossings or arrange assistance and subsidies for civilians. We are in need of a force that will protect the [interim] government and bring relief convoys to areas in need. We’ve come up with the middle stage of this plan, which should last between 90– 180 days. After that, we will undertake investment projects.
Since the outset, we have held the conviction that the first steps of the government should be targeted toward cooperation with the Free Syrian Army [FSA] and the police, as there exists a dangerous security vacuum on the ground. This fact is reflected in peoples’ lives, and we have been forced to arrange the army’s affairs through the Ministry of Defense. We conducted a number of meetings attended by the minister of defense and chief of staff of the Supreme Military Council along with various militia commanders. The meeting also included leaders of the Islamic Front and was held in Turkey. We arrived at a shared vision that we need the support of the international community in order to pay the salaries of the 60,000-90,000 men that comprise the FSA. We believe these salaries will strengthen ties between the fighters and the Ministry of Defense. From here we can discuss the subject of military hierarchy, as we in the past suffered from an absence of organization, the thing which was reflected in poor coordination between battalions and brigades on the ground. Our most important objective is to bring together a force under the Supreme Military Council that protects government facilities in order to allow the institution to carry out its work inside Syria.
The second point, which we have taken great interest in, is the issue of the border crossings. This is a very important issue, and regulation of entry and exit to and from Syria demonstrates that the interim government has taken the first step toward maintaining a presence on the ground. Of course, there are no problems with the Turkish side of the border, but at home, and therefore, we hope that communication will lead to an understanding with those in charge of the crossings. Thus regulating entries and exits will lead to a positive outcome for the Syrian people.
On a parallel note, we are striving to be present in all things that are of interest to the government. We are communicating with local councils and we’ve started to implement small projects that do not require great financial assets. Additionally, we have resumed work in the medical field in preparation for the appointment of a minister of health. This should take place over 10 days during the next meeting. We have also activated the Office of Education. The department has 2 million books in print ready to be distributed to students.
Q: In terms of crossings, are you referring to all the groups that control the crossings, including the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), for example?
No, we don’t deal with the Al-Nusra Front or ISIS.
Q: But don’t they control numerous crossings?
Yes, [but] we hope to communicate with groups that are somewhat moderate.
Q: Is the relationship between the interim government and the coalition clear? Do you have any issues dividing powers?
I don’t think we have issues with dividing powers. The relationship between the two is defined by the rules and procedures of the Coalition. [Coalition member] Kamal Labwani has launched a project to better define that relationship through the Legal Committee, and a discussion will be held soon to determine the relationship once and for all. Furthermore, we are focusing on providing services inside Syria, whereas the Coalition concentrates on political work. We complement one another.
Q: The British foreign secretary was recently in Manama, Bahrain, and said in a statement that negotiators at the Geneva II conference should be prepared to make concessions. What possible concessions can the opposition make?
If we look carefully at the text of Geneva I communiqué , we see that it is not open to interpretation. I wonder how some, especially the ones close to the regime, choose to explain it as they like.
The text clearly provides for the formation of a transitional body with full powers, including security, [the] military, intelligence services, and all aspects of a functioning state. It also stated that the members of this body must be chosen through consensus between the two sides. This is the basic concession on our part: to allow members of the regime who did not take part in bloodshed to be in the body. In practice this means that we will not accept the presence of the ruling family [the Assad family] and their junta. In contrast, the other side’s concession is to stop killing people and step down.
The issue of the departure of Assad regime is taken for granted because a governmental body cannot be formed without each side’s consent.
Q: This may be the case from your point of view, but the Assad regime has a different perspective, given the statements it issued recently . . .
If these statements were successive, then we would adhere to the formula provided by Geneva I, which does not allow for interpretation. Geneva II will be a procedural conference that will serve to implement the measures established by Geneva I, rather than a negotiating one,. We approve of the statement that was published by the Friends of Syria group after the London conference on November 22, and encourage our allies to adhere to it.
Q: What is your view of the conference? After the opening, you will find yourselves among representatives of the regime, as well as UN-Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, in the same room in an attempt to put together a transitional government body. Will Bashar Al-Assad remain in power through to the end of negotiations and the establishment of the transitional government, or perhaps the end of his term in mid-2014?
We will not accept a role for Assad during the transitional phase. The negotiation phase will serve to establish this body. Once the formation of the body has been agreed, Bashar Al-Assad will not be a part of it, whether his term ended or not. As the issue is related to how long it will take for the body to be formed. If it is done in a short period, it means that Assad will be removed as soon as this goal is achieved.
If this takes longer, Assad will demand to remain in office until the end of his tenure, and he may seek to stay in power longer. The fundamental question is related to forming this body, and the interim government wants the international community to press on this issue so that we can achieve progress in two to three months.
Q: Can you clarify this point? What is important to you is the process of forming this new transitional body and installing it with executive powers, whether Assad is in office or not. Is that correct?
No, we will not accept Assad’s remaining in power for even one moment after the governmental body is formed, but we are obliged to enter into negotiations before this. If we come to agreements within two to three months, what is left of Assad’s government will fall over time. His term ends by June 2014. If we reach an agreement within three months, he will be forced to relinquish the presidency after two, in the sense that we will not allow him to remain, even if only as a figurehead until the end of his term. It is an issue of when to agree the formation of the transitional government.
Q: Have you reached an understanding on this point with Western powers? We heard from European diplomats that if powers were properly transferred to the transitional government then there is nothing wrong with Assad remaining through to the end of his term, albeit without any real power.
They did not discuss that with us, and we will not allow Assad to remain in power after the new government is formed. The international community has not discussed many of the details with us, so we still have many concerns and fears. We want to hash out the minute details so that we can fully understand what is going out and put to rest the fears held by a large number of our Coalition members. This is our right.
Q: The Coalition demanded guarantees before they agree to take part in the Geneva I conference. Were you able to obtain these guarantees?
We told them that we had particular demands. They include opening humanitarian corridors and releasing women, children and the elderly from prisons. This is the least we can ask for before going to Geneva. We communicate with friendly countries which then communicate with Russia, as this puts pressure on the regime to meet those two demands before Geneva.
Q: There is a rumor circulating among diplomatic circles that the regime will attend Geneva II and drag its feet through the talks in the hope of holding presidential elections without a transitional government body. That rumor also says that Assad will issue a decree or that Parliament will adopt a resolution declaring that presidential elections cannot be held in light of the war, and thus Assad’s term will be extended by two years. Do you have any information about this claim? Are you afraid this may happen?
A criminal regime could do anything. What is important now is to form our transitional government.
Q: Will the opposition go to Geneva united in one delegation?
Yes, we are sure this will be the case The statement issued by the Friends of Syria, as well as new pieces of information have made it clear that the Coalition will lead negotiations on behalf of the opposition and thus form a united delegation.
Q: But who will be among the representatives of the Coalition?
There will be one representative of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change.
Q: One representative?
At least. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party is part of the regime, whereas the Kurdish National Council is a member of the Coalition. This party is linked to the regime. Both sides work together to kill rebels, so how can we say that the group is part of the opposition? It is clearly on the side of the regime. [Former Syrian Deputy Prime Minister] Qadri Jamil and [Syrian Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs] Ali Haidar are associated with them. There will be no opposition delegation, just the Coalition and those whom they choose to bring.
Q: Will members of the FSA participate?
Yes. We hope to bring representatives of brigade commanders who work on the ground.
Q: What is your take on the emergence of the Islamic Front and its split from the FSA?
The group is a conglomerate of battalions and brigades which used to receive aid from the Supreme Military Council, but they were not operating primarily under its banner. This is their position, and we are trying to work with them to change this situation and reunify the FSA. The interim defense minister has spared no effort in communicating with all parties in order to bridge gaps between factions and close ranks.
Q: Will it be possible to bring these groups under the umbrella of the FSA before Geneva II?
We very much hope so.
Q: Do you think a US–Russian deal on Syria is likely? That is, they let Assad eliminate the jihadists who worry the Americans and Russians in exchange for his remaining in power?
I don’t think so. The Americans have made it clear to us that the regime gave them that offer and said: ‘Why don’t you align yourselves with us to get rid of Al-Qaeda and allow our regime to remain in power?’ But the Americans rejected the offer outright and answered: ‘You brought Al-Qaeda to Syria along with all of these problems, so how could you possibly save us from them?’ I don’t think there will ever be a deal with Russia on this issue.
Q: But the chemical weapons deal saved the regime and allowed it to breathe for a moment, did it not?
At first, we feared the international community [would only] confiscate the tools of the crime and leave the criminal himself still at large with other tools at his disposal. However, in reality chemical disarmament is a step in the right direction. We never used chemical weapons and in our minds they should not have a place in Syria’s future. I think that after accepting this deal, the Americans got two important things: they removed chemical weapons from the regime to the benefit of Israel, and they got assurances from the Iranians that they would abandon their nuclear program and refrain from [uranium] enrichment to 20 percent. For Washington, this is much more important than what is going on in Syria.
Q: What is Russia’s real position on you, the opposition, and the regime? What will they accept in the end?
We still do not understand why the Russians chose this path. Their relationship with the Syrian people was essentially good, but they did not have a strong relationship with either with Hafez Al-Assad nor Bashar. The issue pertains to the future balance of power and what can be obtained by the Russians, who are currently feuding with America.
Recently there have been reports of Russia negotiating with the opposition regarding assurances it can give in order for Moscow to soften its position on the crisis. The Coalition will study the matter and reply to Moscow. The next phase may be to visit Russia as the invitations to visit have been offered to the president of the Coalition and the president of the [interim] government. We are open to a future visit.
Q: Did you meet Prince Saud Al-Faisal in Paris?
No, this meeting did not happen, but we will pay a visit to Riyadh in the near future to meet with Saudi leaders.
Q: Who is in control of oil production in Syria?
Oil production has collapsed, as the majority of wells are under the control of various tribes and armed groups. The small amount that is produced goes to those who control the wells.
Q: So the government no longer receives any oil money?
It obtains a tiny fraction of what is produced.
Q: Have you cut off all ties with the PYD and the People’s Protection Units it leads?
It is clear that this group is aligned with the regime in combating the revolution, although it claims to be a part of the opposition. How can we see them as part of the opposition when they fight alongside the regime against the FSA? They stood with the regime. How can we cooperate with them?
Q: Why not strive to influence them through the Iraqi Kurds?
We tried, and repeatedly asked them to abandon the regime and openly declare their support for the revolution, but nothing came of it.