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Here's How Syria's Opposition Government Essentially Went Broke

The Syrian Interim Government has been mired in a vicious cycle of mistrust, mismanagement, and alleged corruption that has landed it in the middle of a financial crisis.

by Xanthe Ackerman
May 6 2015, 4:05pm

Photo via Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While recent rebel gains in Syria fuel speculation about the future of besieged President Bashar al-Assad, the country's opposition government in exile is floundering after a string of setbacks have hampered its credibility as a viable alternative and undermined its standing in United States foreign policy.

The Syrian Interim Government (SIG), based in Turkey, oversees liberated Syria and refugee affairs in neighboring countries, implementing projects that range from supporting local councils inside Syria to coordinating relief efforts. In 2013, it presented the best hope for a government that could take over a democratic, post-Assad administration. But the opposition has since been mired in a vicious cycle of mistrust, mismanagement, and alleged corruption, and has grown increasingly marginalized since the US prioritized attacking the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria above Assad's removal.

After war broke out in Syria and Assad became a pariah, the US organized a group of more than 100 countries that formally recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces — a parliamentary assembly of revolutionaries in exile, expatriates, and former military commanders — in late 2012. The National Coalition formed the SIG the following year to ensure the delivery of public services and oversight of legal duties for civilians in opposition-held areas, and to serve as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Now, with the SIG having spent nearly all of a $68 million grant given by Qatar in January 2014, shortly after it began work, the government has not paid salaries to its employees since mid-January. Although the SIG has access to support from a trust fund of more than $100 million in contributions that is overseen by a group of 13 countries, and to in-kind aid such as perishable goods and military equipment, Qatar is the only donor government that has provided money that the SIG can use to pay staff.

The financial crisis at SIG has essentially gone unanswered by its Western allies, bringing into relief the perception that the US does not fully back the Syrian opposition politically or militarily.

Ayad Koudsi, who was chairman of the steering committee of the Syria Recovery Trust Fund while serving as SIG's interim deputy prime minister, told VICE News that although the nations that contributed to the fund politically recognize the opposition government, "they still did not want to directly fund a government in exile which did not have a seat at the United Nations." Accordingly, the trust fund's charter prohibits its use for salaries.

After the pay freeze, some 200 of the government's approximately 530 staff members outside of Syria resigned or were asked to leave. An additional 3000 staff inside Syria have been working without pay.

Syrians in Turkey, many of whom were impoverished by the war, have criticized the National Coalition for spending too freely on a luxury four-story office in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, and on monthly salaries that started at $2,500 for senior managers and went up to $8000 per month for the interim prime minister. Aware of the ire drawn by these salaries, the SIG says that it has slashed salaries across the board by a third.

Two car companies also recently sued the SIG when it failed to pay monthly dues of at least $26,000 for a fleet of more than 30 leased cars, according to a Syrian opposition news report. A former SIG employee who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity confirmed that the government had to return the cars and that it fired at least one of its drivers.

Related: Obama Has No Good Options for Ending the War in Syria

Security stands guard outside of the first embassy of the Syrian Interim Government to open in Qatar. (Photo by Karim Sahib/Getty Images)

The SIG's financial crisis might have resulted from overt corruption as well as poor management. The Syrian Observer news site has reported on allegations that include the paying of SIG "advisors" whose jobs were false, the misappropriation of funds, and the abuse of housing allowance funds by the interim prime minister.

When VICE News raised these allegations with Nader Othman, interim deputy prime minister for the government, he dismissed them as irrelevant.

"We now have a new government since January," he said. "We have many new internal rules and management procedures such as labor codes. I don't think we need to explain all of this. We are now succeeding. I'm not saying all of those accusations are right. Our organization started from zero and these things can happen. But they will not again."

The funding shortfall has forced the curtailing of central SIG efforts, such as the Syrian Commission for Transitional Justice's reporting on human rights abuses committed by Assad's government. Other basic state functions continue, including the administration of middle and high school graduation exams in opposition-held territory in June. But if the SIG cannot afford to staff all testing centers, children from understaffed areas will have to travel farther to take exams and risk greater exposure to aerial bombing.

The financial crisis at SIG has essentially gone unanswered by its Western allies, bringing into relief the perception that the US does not fully back the Syrian opposition politically or militarily. Though the US will directly fund the SIG only after it establishes itself within Syria, it started providing support for moderate rebels fighting Assad, including missiles, as early as April 2014. Congress approved $500 million the following September to train and equip Syrian rebels, but the priority quickly shifted to fighting IS.

Related: In Syria, the Enemy of America's Enemy Is Still a Lousy Friend

Because IS also seeks to remove Assad from power, attacking one of his primary opponents indirectly benefits him — a point that US President Barack Obama has tacitly acknowledged. Members of the SIG — which is tied to the Free Syrian Army but otherwise has questionable influence among rebel groups, particularly Islamist brigades — fear that this focus threatens the premise of the Syrian revolution and the existence of the opposition government.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations has described differing views within the Obama administration on the way forward in Syria. Some support the SIG's idea of outfitting opposition forces to both remove Assad and fight IS.

"On the other side," Lemmon says, "another group embraces the view that the US should focus on pushing ISIS back in Iraq while quietly allowing for the likelihood that Assad must stay, if only because there is no guarantee of what will come after him."

The SIG's recent financial challenges boost the latter view.

Management mistakes and internal discord have also tarnished the reputations of the National Coalition and the SIG. Last year, the financial advisory firm Deloitte audited the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), the arm of the National Coalition that coordinates many humanitarian aid efforts. It found that $1 million of the ACU's $62 million in grants were untraceable. Last fall, an ACU-led vaccination project in Syria resulted in the deaths of fifteen infants.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood's presence in Syria was small before the war relative to other countries, it has gained strength in the contest for influence that ensued since the conflict began.

While Western funders kept their distance from the SIG, Qatar stepped in with flexible funding in January 2014 that the SIG could use for salaries as well as projects. But Qatar's largesse and closeness to Interim Prime Minister Ahmeh Tomeh inflamed tensions with Saudi Arabia, another major backer of the opposition and a rival of Qatar.

The National Coalition voted to force out Tomeh's government last July for its poor record, only to reinstate him in a partial vote in October after competing factions couldn't agree. Saudi-aligned members and other dissenters abstained. Qatar reportedly threatened to withdraw support from the coalition if Tomeh wasn't re-elected.

The re-election sparked a walkout by some 35 voting members of the coalition in protest of Tomeh's leadership as well as his allegiance to a Muslim Brotherhood voter block. Recriminations about Saudi meddling have also circulated. Amid the dysfunction, the fact that National Coalition members were appointed rather than elected to office by a popular vote and their inability to move their leadership inside of Syria led many Syrians to argue that they are not truly representative of the people.

SIG Interim Deputy Prime Minister Otham said that Tomeh is currently in Qatar, where the emir is considering making an additional grant of $25 million to the government. Dr. Hisham Marwah, vice president of the National Coalition, told VICE News that the four-month funding gap is the result of the SIG's prior management challenges, adding that these issues are now rectified. Qatar is currently auditing the SIG's spending.

Two former employees of the SIG told VICE News on condition of anonymity that they believe Qatar's role as the sole institutional funder has created undue influence, and allege that Qatari officials and Tomeh jointly fomented a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated voter block within the National Coalition. One of the former employees left the SIG because of the pay freeze, while the other left because he objected to what he characterized as the Muslim Brotherhood's dominance over more moderate factions.

Related: Syria After Four Years: Timeline of a Conflict

Political Islam has swelled to fill the power vacuum left by deposed dictators following the Arab Spring, and its democratic integration has had difficulty. After the ousting of Mubarak in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood flexed its organizational and political muscle and won parliamentary and presidential elections. President Mohamed Morsi vowed to base his government on Sharia law and empowered Islamists before the military removed him from office in July 2013. Since Muammar Qaddafi was deposed in Libya, political tensions between liberal-leaning factions on one side and the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups on the other have resulted in a civil war being fought by two opposing governments.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood's presence in Syria was small before the war relative to other countries, it has gained strength in the contest for influence that ensued since the conflict began.

Marwah said that talk of Muslim Brotherhood influence in the SIG is just "propaganda," but he emphasized that Western countries' funding models would not allow for salary payments, even when attached to projects. For the kind of flexible support that can allow the government to function, he said, the SIG is looking to Qatar.

National Coalition leadership had a warm meeting on Saturday with Saudi Arabia's UN ambassador in New York, suggesting the possibility that the kingdom might counter Qatar's flexibility with its own.

Hind Kabawat, a Syrian from Damascus who runs programs for the United States Institute of Peace, agrees that the SIG has been mismanaged, but argues that the international community should keep supporting them.

"Let's remember, they are not the opposition of Switzerland! They are from Syria," she told VICE News. "There was no transparency there. There was 50 years of dictatorship and corruption.... It's always a competition, a conspiracy. These are things that you get when you live under a dictator."

When asked about the challenges of funding an opposition that includes a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated faction, Kabawat replied, "There are liberals in the SIG. Maybe by training the liberals they will become stronger. There are liberals, secular people thinking about civil society. You can't neglect them all."

Koudsi, the former interim prime minister for the opposition who describes himself as democratic-leaning, said that these distinctions must become less important going forward.

"We want participation based on qualifications, not based on whether they are from the democratic group, the Brotherhood, or Islamists," he said. "They have to work for the Syrian cause, not for interest groups."

Reporting for this article was supported by The Fuller Project.

Follow Xanthe Ackerman on Twitter: @XAckerman