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Syrian opposition still deadlocked over interim government

Opposition cancels meeting to elect interim government for the second time in less than a fortnight amid continuing internal divisions. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

ISTANBUL //The Syrian opposition has cancelled a meeting to elect an interim government for the second time in less than two weeks amid continuing internal divisions.

The meeting, scheduled for this week after an earlier cancellation on March 2, is now scheduled to take place in Istanbul on March 20, but that date and location has yet to be confirmed. The cancellation is the latest setback for efforts by opposition groups to present a credible alternative to the rule of president Bashar Al Assad.

"Unfortunately, the meeting of the general assembly has been postponed to the 20th March," a source at the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an opposition umbrella group recognised as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by the Arab League and western powers, said yesterday.

But Molham Aldrobi, an official of the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful faction within the opposition, said the meeting could also take place on another day.

"The deadline has not been agreed yet," Mr Aldrobi said. "But I hope we will see the birth of the [office of interim] prime minister in March." He said Istanbul was the "most likely" venue for the talks, but that it was "not a necessity".

The main task of the interim government would be to improve everyday life in areas of Syria where the insurgents have driven out government troops, the SNC source said. The interim government would also be based in "liberated" regions of the country, the source said.

Mr Aldrobi said this week's meeting had been postponed after several candidates for the post of interim prime minister had withdrawn. He did not give details.

Some candidates, such as Asaad Mustafa, a former Syrian agriculture minister, faced criticism because of their role in the Al Assad government. Earlier this month, the former prime minister, Riad Hijab, the highest-ranking civilian defector from Mr Al Assad's government, withdrew his candidacy.

The SNC source also said that the SNC president and opposition leader, Moaz Alkhatib, had cancelled this week's meeting in Istanbul to give the SNC's political committee time to address "all the unsolved issues, mainly the ones related to the interim government, before the general assembly meeting will take place".

Plagued by internal power struggles, SNC leaders have been trying for months to agree on an interim government that could rule those areas in Syria, especially in the north and east, that are no longer under Mr Al Assad's control as the result of a two-year uprising that has killed 70,000 people and driven more than a million Syrians to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

The latest cancellation came as would-be participants said major questions were still unanswered.

Najib Ghadban, the SNC's representative in the United States and at the United Nations, said last week that it was unclear whether the meeting would pick a complete interim government or select only a candidate for the post of interim prime minister, who would then form his team, to be approved by the SNC assembly at a later date.

He also said the meeting had been scheduled to discuss ways to ensure the interim government controlled the supreme military council of rebel groups fighting Mr Al Assad's troops on the ground. "I expect a more formal arrangement," he said.

For the SNC, formed with the support of western and Gulf countries in Qatar last November, creating an interim government is a key task to win more substantive backing from foreign countries and to show that the insurgents have the capability to lead Syria to democracy after the fall of the Al Assad regime.

tseibert@thenational.ae

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