Ahmad Tomeh

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Congratulations, sir…in September 2013 you were elected to the most challenging position in the Middle East, and perhaps in the entire world. You are Ahmed Tomeh, and you have just been chosen by Syria's main opposition alliance--the Syrian National Council--as the Prime Minister of the Syrian government in exile.

File:Tomeh.jpg

A few words about your background. You are from the eastern Syrian town of Deir al-Zour, where you worked as a dentist but, for over 20 years now, where you also worked--quietly--for democratic reform in Syria. Starting in 1997, you preached at Friday sermons at mosques in your area, though the authorities gradually put a stop to this. According to a biography posted on the BBC News website, in 2001 you "joined the Committee for the Revival of Civil Society in Syria, which campaigned for democracy, the release of prisoners of conscience, and the protection of human rights," and you were "one of the founders of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (DDDNC), a coalition of political parties, human rights groups and pro-democracy activists named after a 2005 document that demanded Syria's transformation from a 'security state to a political state'."

Once again, your work caught the attention of the Assad regime and, in 2007, you were jailed for 30 months for signing this "Damascus Declaration." Soon after your release from prison, the popular uprising against the Assad government began, and it wasn't long before your support for the uprising had you back in prison, jailed this time for "inciting protest." In order to take part in the uprising and remain in Syria you changed your name, hoping that it would afford you a measure of protection as you became active in the coalition of exiled opposition groups, the Syrian National Council (SNC). Soon enough, though, you saw that your participation might put both you and other Council members at risk, so you quit the SNC and left for Turkey, where you still reside as of September 2013.

You now have some idea of why your job is so challenging, given the fact that the Assad regime has viewed you as a threat for many years. Your challenges don't stop here, though. The SNC tried earlier in 2013 to name a Prime Minister, in a crucial symbolic step to make it evident to all concerned that the Opposition was preparing for a political transition even as the military conflicts with the regime continued and deepened. The person first chosen to fill that position, a Syrian-American businessman named Ghassan Hitto, resigned before he could even name a cabinet. His resignation reflects the division that exists within the Opposition, a problem with which you will need to do battle. Hitto was thought to be too strongly allied with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and this fact greatly worried Saudi Arabia, a key financial backer of the opposition. In contrast with the leadership of Qatar, anothe regional "player" that provides financial support to the Opposition, the Saudis see the Brotherhood's Islamist orientation as a dangerous threat--to themselves. They fear that what they see as more militant Islamist influence will feed Islamist militancy throughout the region, ultimately threatening the Saudi regime and royal family.

You were chosen, in the end, because while you led a more secular coalition that was much more acceptable to the Saudis, you maintained good enough relations with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that you were acceptable to them as well. Or, at least, you were acceptable enough to them that they supported your election. How you will sustain what could be somewhat lukewarm support from SNC members affiliated with the Brotherhood will partially determine how successful your government-in-exile will be. In an article published in the New York Times upon your election in August, Kareem Fahim wrote that the SNC "has cemented a reputation for infighting, and many Syrians disparage it as an exile movement beholden to the agendas of its foreign supporters. While the group has gained international recognition, its leaders complain that it receives insufficient support." In short, the SNC has not made great political headway, whether in the eyes of Syrians or in the view of the world community, and your job will be to try to hold things together enough that you can make a show of strength, and convince those (like the Americans, the Turks and the French) who strongly oppose Assad that you can provide a strong political entity that can sit opposite Assad at the negotiating table, and ultimately form the basis for a solid future government in Syria.

In the wake of your election, journalist Daniel Serwer wrote on September 18, 2013 that "The United States, Britain and France are pledging to step up assistance to the opposition, which...finally named (you) to head an interim government." Calling you "Saudi-friendly" Serwer wrote that you are "expected to name a government that will try to improve delivery of services in liberated areas," and mentioned "reports of accelerated weapons deliveries to vetted Syrian Free Army units, and a possible shift of responsibility (for coordinating American efforts to aid the opposition) from the CIA to the Department of Defense, but at the moment the regime still seems to have the initiative on the battlefield." It is probably fair to say that you are gambling everything on this potential assistance, and obtaining greater financial and military aid from Turkey and Saudi Arabia (as well as France and Britain) while keeping strong enough ties with Qatar that they do not sit on their hands.

As you seek legitimacy for your government, a final issue with which you must deal is the ironic fact that the SNC, and your "government" such as it is, is physically located outside of Syria, mainly in Turkey, but also in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Many of the leaders of the SNC, very much including you, left Syria out of a very real fear for their lives, but you nonetheless must find a way to connect the SNC more directly with the actual resistance in Syria, lest you be seen as somewhat ridiculous figures, fighting a war from hotel banquet rooms. You have said that the members of your cabinet will reside in Syria, but you will need to move cautiously in this direction, as many SNC members have no interest in returning to the murderous chaos that is now Syria. In short, then, you must figure out how to address this crisis of legitimacy for your new government, for the sake of protecting the credibility of your new government.

Being a dentist is surely a difficult job, but you may soon find yourself feeling nostalgic for doing root canals and filling cavities. Be strong, Mr. Prime Minister!

Sources

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24113447

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/world/middleeast/rebels-view-coalition-leadership-outside-syria-as-detached-from-the-suffering.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/18/us-what-is-next-for-syrias-opposition-idUSBRE98H11C20130918

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/world/middleeast/syrian-opposition-group-elects-new-prime-minister.html

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2010/06/syria-three-prominent-political-dissidents-released.html

http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/05/17/endgame-for-syrian-national-coalition/g3qt

http://theseason.yuku.com/topic/21130#.Uj8UMbx56yw

http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/1310485/dissident-dentist-ahmad-tomeh-named-syrian-opposition-interim-pm

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