Why you should care
Because the question has become not when the war will end, but if it will.
Finding Syria’s Ministry of Justice in exile is not easy. Aside from the metal detector in the lobby and barbed wire perimeter, the building is utterly unassuming, and you might walk right past the sheet of white paper, taped to the apartment door, that identifies the office. And then there’s this: The office is located in Gaziantep, Turkey, some 250 miles from the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Within this dirty-white apartment block resides the most credible alternative to the deadly regime of Bashar Assad: the Syrian Interim Government (SIG). Inside, a prime minister and his Cabinet are trying, improbably, to govern their war-torn country. Their own qualifications? Inconsistent. The justice minister, for instance, was a longtime judge in a medium-size city — he fled in a car full of court files when ISIS overran it. But Prime Minister Ahmad Tomeh was a dentist. “A very good one,” he tells me, “but now I wish I’d studied history of politics instead.”
It’s unclear that the degree would have helped. Despite its haven in cushy Gaziantep and not-insignificant international support, the SIG is terribly troubled. As evidenced by the empty desks and cracked ceilings, its coffers are running dry. No one, from the education minister all the way down to the people in Syria who administer exams to children, has been paid since January, says the justice minister. More troubling is that among Syrians themselves, the SIG’s reputation is rocky. After all, no one in Syria elected the Cabinet members, and neither did the thousands of Syrian refugees who’ve fled to Gaziantep. “They’re as bad as Assad, if you ask me,” says Ghaly Tazza, a 24-year-old. “They’re just looking after themselves instead of helping their brothers inside Syria.”
These days, the would-be leaders of their wrecked state say they want to move back to Syria. They’ll have to dodge bullets, chemical weapons, assassins and Assad’s bombs, but some of them say there’s no other option. “I am not afraid to die,” says Justice Minister Fayez al-Zaher with a calm smile. “My main concern is not putting everyone in the same building, so that if some are killed, the others can keep working.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Two years ago, according to Tomeh, the Qatari government ponied up $60 million in funding. The theory went something like this: When Syria’s war ended, someone would have to sign a cease-fire agreement with Assad. Moreover, the West needed a clear chain of command through which to distribute aid — humanitarian and otherwise. There was also some hope that an alternate civil government could help fend off armed extremists.
The strategy has not worked out so well. ISIS is now an international threat. The Syrian National Coalition, which is headquartered in Istanbul and created the SIG, has been riven by bitter infighting. People now ask not when the war will end, but if it will. And yet, experts say that however uncertain Syria’s future, the dentist prime minister, his Cabinet and the coalition that elected him might be its best shot at a semblance of peace. “There needs to be a political alternative to Assad, and that’s what they are,” says Mahjoob Zweiri, an expert in the Syrian conflict at Qatar University. “A power vacuum during the transition would be a disaster — look at Yemen or Libya.”
In fairness, the SIG has managed to provide some basic services to parts of Syria despite the difficulties of governing a wrecked state from a distance. It’s built schools and set up hospitals, for instance. In January, after the Qatari money dried up, the SIG received $6 million from the United States — the first time America directly funded the rebel body. And in March, it won an opportunity of sorts to show that it can do more: The northwestern city of Idlib had fallen from Assad’s control, opening up a space for the SIG to build support within Syria.
And yet, Idlib had fallen into the hands of the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. Even if the SIG manages to fend off the Nusra Front brigades that now control the city and survive Assad’s chemical attacks, bankrolling their vision of law and order will be difficult. Minister of Finance Ibrahim Miro says that rebuilding the country will cost about $100 billion.
Everyone at the SIG is aware that what they’re trying to pull off is just shy of a miracle. And while the Syrian National Coalition tries to quell the infighting among its various factions — from secular feminists to the Muslim Brotherhood — maintaining the legitimacy of its government in exile has become increasingly difficult. History doesn’t offer much hope. Aside from the one set up during the Nazi invasion of France, interim governments have worked only when they are located inside their home country, like the one in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall.
But time to make a difference is running out fast. If Syrians stop believing in the SIG, it will be hard to maintain its raison d’être. And accusations of mismanagement, high salaries and meetings in five-star hotels have not helped sway the hearts and minds of most Syrians. It’s obvious why the SIG is so eager to return home.