Jawad Abu Hatab

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You are Dr. Jawad Abu Hatab, the current Prime Minister (and Defense Minister) of the opposition Syrian Interim Government, which operates under the auspices of the Syrian National Council (SNC).

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Early Life

You were born in rural Damascus in 1962 and graduated from the medical faculty at Damascus University in 1988. You then worked as a heart surgeon in the Cardiac Surgery Hospital at the University of Damascus before traveling to Italy in 2003 where you studied to be a pediatric cardiologist.

Syrian Opposition Work

During the beginning of the Syrian crisis, you worked in a local opposition council overseeing the Damascus countryside that received $600,000 as part of an $8 million assistance package from the government of Qatar in support of the opposition Syrian National Council.

Prior to becoming prime minister, you held many positions in the Interim Government, including serving as head of the health authority and vice-president of the Supreme Council of Local Administration. You also participated in workshops on ways to assist the besieged areas and co-signed a statement with 125 other doctors in Riyadh calling for an end to the Assad government.

Tenure as Prime Minister

You were elected prime minister of the Syrian Interim Government in May 2016, a decision agreed to by more than 40 Syrian rebel factions. This was impressive, but this unity seems to be the result of desperate circumstances, as the Assad regime, once thought to be on its way out, has been markedly bolstered by support from Hezbollah, Iran and, most notably, from Russia. Your ascendance to power was celebrated by the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC), a body of Syrian Muslim clerics established in 2014 in Turkey who called on rebels "to form one revolutionary army" so as to "bring the downfall of the criminal (Assad) regime.” Strong words, to be sure, but the cause of the Syrian Opposition is looking more and more like a lost one, especially since the support of the West and the Sunni Arab powers has lessened significantly, as most parties have resigned themselves to Assad remaining in power. While providing education and medical services to Syrians living in opposition-held areas is a central focus of your government, you are also focused on increasing the coordination between the interim government and the local councils on the ground. You have said that the central ministries of your government will be the education, health, local administration, and interior ministries. You have also sought to form an independent body which would monitor the interim government.

Keeping with this focus, you’ve emphasized the need for opposition government officials to be based inside Syria despite the dangers they face. After your election, you stated that ministers and officials would work inside Syria and that doctors and teachers on the ground would nominate the ministers of health and education, respectively. You also emphasized the need to select technocrats for ministerial posts, rather than relying on representatives from various political blocs and/or ethnicities.

Kurdish groups were largely unhappy with the makeup of your new government, and you’ve met with the Kurdish National Council (KNC) to seek the best ways for your government to coordinate with the group. Your new government did not include any Kurds in ministerial positions, and the KNC contended that Kurds had been deliberately excluded from important positions in the new government. You denied that there had been any intentional exclusion of the Kurds from your administration, arguing that your government instead had focused on ensuring that candidates for ministerial positions were qualified and could operate inside Syria.

The Syrian National Council

The Syrian National Council (SNC), an affiliation of several groups in Syria that are opposed to the government of Bashir Assad, has been badly split for many years. Your predecessor, Ahmed Tomeh, was only chosen because he led a more secular coalition that was acceptable to Saudi Arabia, a major supporter of many Opposition groups and militias, while he maintained sufficiently good relations with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood that he was acceptable enough to them that they also supported his election. In an article published in the New York Times upon Tomeh’s ascension to the Prime Ministership of the Opposition, 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 turn that around. You must try to hold things together enough that you can make a show of strength in order to convince those, especially the Turks, who oppose Assad, that you can create 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. The odds are not with you.

As you seek legitimacy for your government, another 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 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 its credibility. You and your predecessors have made the case that since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, which started with peaceful demonstrations by people asking for democratic changes, Bashar Al Assad's brutal regime killed, imprisoned and tortured anyone calling for change. His regime converted the entire country into a human slaughterhouse, killing men, children, women, and the elderly without any mercy, using barrel bombs and poison gas to kill thousands of innocent people, including children and women, while the international community gave the Syrian People empty promises and invisible red lines and left them to face these horrific atrocities (and the Syrian military, which fought with major assistance from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah) all alone.

Now that the Assad regime has regained the overwhelming military edge, your case will be harder and harder to make. You must convince Turkey and the Western powers that your cause is still a viable one, and you must try to keep Saudi Arabia and your other Gulf supporters from completely giving up on the idea of overthrowing Assad and instead focusing their attention on negotiating the minimization of Iranian military influence in Syria through negotiation with Russia. As part of its effort to unify its forces and maximize its waning strength, you have been chosen both as Prime Minister of the Syrian Government in Exile and as its Defense Minister. You have been given a position of relative power, but the only way that you can “win” this battle is to use all your powers of moral persuasion to convince the Saudis, Turks and the Western powers that it is worth it for them to resist what seems like unchangeable political and military reality for the sake of an ideal—that a brutal dictator should not be allowed to retain power, even if allowing this is the politically smart and safe thing to do.

The Challenges You Face

While military action from opposition forces is a major concern, easing donor concerns is just as pressing. In order to wage your war you need external support. You need weapons, ammunition, intelligence, food, and medical supplies. The US and others will definitely not give you these things if they believe that you will misuse them. Your primary goal is to demonstrate that the forces of the FSA are under your command and control. In a splintered nation engulfed in a lengthy and brutal civil war, this will be no easy task.

Many of your fighters on the ground are from predominately Sunni areas of the country. For decades they have been subjugated by an Alawite minority that has limited their chances for advancement within the military or within the government. The urge for retribution is only natural. This is also something that gives strength to the Assad Regime. The Alawite minority is powerful, wealthy, and entrenched. Fear that your forces will begin exacting revenge will drive the Alawites closer to Assad and make them much more willing to fight. This could be catastrophic, as not only will it lengthen the war, but it could lead to a further dividing up of the nation. If the Alawites leave, they will take with them many of the Syrian peoples’ sources of revenue. It is key to the campaign that you comfort the fears of the Alawite business class and assure them that revenge will not be taken against them should your forces win the day.

By keeping a measured tone and not threatening civilians you can also make it clear that you are not interested in revenge. Making clear that your objective is to remove Assad is key to earning the trust of the minorities, as is controlling the Islamist groups. The state-controlled news media has made it its mission to demonize your group and portray you as Islamic radicals. This is, of course, not true. Only a small percentage of your active fighters are Islamists. However, to Syria, which is a predominantly moderate society, the fear of an Islamist resurgence is frightening. You must use the media to reach out to western backers to show that you are in control, and that Syria can still have a civilian, secular government. Your challenge rests with the fact that you will need to work with all groups involved, whether Islamist or secular, in order to prevail, yet in doing so you cannot be seen as giving way to extremists. Your ability to tackle this significant challenge will demonstrate the skill and integrity of your government to those whose support you need, both in the short and the long term. Good luck, sir.

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