ISTANBUL // The Syrian opposition in exile says it has begun drafting concrete plans for a transition of power once the regime of Bashar Al Assad falls.
The opposition, which includes veteran politicians, ethnic leaders, Islamists, secular dissidents, youth activists and defected soldiers, has been struggling to persuade potential supporters abroad that it can overcome its divisions and be a viable alternative to Mr Al Assad's government.
In a series of confidential workshops titled "The Day After", opposition members have been looking at questions ranging from securing water and electricity supplies for a country of more than 20 million people to finding a role for religion in the post-Assad era, members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition umbrella group, said yesterday. Plans are scheduled to be finalised by July.
The aim of the planning process is to avoid the chaos, disruption and lawlessness that other countries in the region, such as Iraq and Libya, went through after dictatorships were toppled. In fact, experts from Iraq and Libya are among specialists consulted by the Syrian opposition, sources said.
The plans could also serve to answer criticism, levelled by some western officials in recent months, that very little is known about the opposition's vision for Syria. The Al Assad regime has been trying to crush a revolt that started last year, and several western and Arab nations are calling for his resignation.
It remained unclear what role, if any, opposition forces within Syria and groups outside the SNC have been playing in the post-conflict planning. The SNC was recognised as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people by more than 80 countries attending a conference of the "Friends of Syria" in Istanbul this month, but there have been serious rifts within its ranks.
SNC members stressed that no final decisions had been taken yet and that various options are under discussion. "There are three or four drafts on the table now," one SNC source said.
Molham Aldrobi, an SNC official and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that outlines of the transition process and of a new state structure were becoming clear, but many details were still to be worked out.
"We know it's a serious and challenging task", he said about the transition process, which he said would last between six and 18 months. "We are working to handle that."
Plans foresee a presidential system with a head of state serving a maximum of two five-year terms, a market economy and more rights for regions and minorities but no federal structure, according to Mr Aldrobi and other SNC members.
There were ongoing discussions about what sort of constitutional framework would be put into place until a new constitution could be written.
The role of Islam in the new Syria, a closely watched issue because of concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood could try to turn Syria into an Islamic state, was still under discussion, Mr Aldrobi said.
The Quran would be one of the sources of a future constitution, he said. "Not the only source, but one of the sources," he added. "It will be a civil state. It's not going to be an Islamic state."
Members of Mr Al Assad's state apparatus would be retrained if possible, Mr Aldrobi said. "Those considered criminals will get a fair court process." He said an amnesty for regime supporters who distance themselves from Mr Al Assad before the regime falls was under discussion. In the end, "only a handful of people may go to court", he said.
Mahmut Osman, an SNC official in Turkey, confirmed that a 16-page document titled "New Era in Syria" was circulating among opposition members. The document raises the possibility of the deployment of an Arab or international peace force during the transition and calls for significant international aid, according to the Turkish CNNTurk news channel.
Mr Aldrobi said the "New Era in Syria" document provided a general overview about tasks ahead while more detailed plans were unresolved. He said those detailed provisions would be ready by July.
At a March meeting, the SNC and other opposition groups agreed on a National Covenant that provided a first outline of a post-Assad Syria. The text, which was praised as a milestone by the "Friends of Syria" meeting on April 1, said Syria would be "a civil, democratic pluralistic, independent and free state", providing human rights and fundamental freedoms to all citizens.
The text also said a transitional government would take over after the fall of the regime and steer the county to free elections while a "constituent assembly" would draft a new constitution and submit it to a referendum.
The Covenant came as some western officials were expressing doubts about the political aims of the opposition. "We have to know not only what they are against, but what they are for," a western official said last month.