Syrian opposition coalition meets to choose prime minister

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Syria's opposition coalition met in Istanbul on Monday to choose their first prime minister, tasked with running daily life in large swathes of territory freed from regime control but mired in chaos and poverty.

A former Syrian agriculture minister, an economist and a communications executive lead the race ahead of a vote here by the umbrella Syrian National Coalition that could change the course of Syria's civil war.

The opposition premier's first task would be to appoint an interim government, which would be based inside parts of Syria freed from the control of Damascus.

While it would boost the opposition's credibility, a rebel government would reduce chances of dialogue with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Coalition cautioned that there is no guarantee that the election will take place as scheduled, with the process having been postponed before.

"Nobody can guarantee that there will be a vote in today and tomorrow's meeting, but there is a big chance it will happen," Coalition member Samir Nashar told AFP.

On the ground in Syria, opinion is divided between residents desperate for basic services and the rule of law and those who feel the coalition is ill-suited to choose a competent administration.

"The Coalition is not close enough to the ground to have a real sense of the needs here," Aleppo-based activist Abu Hisham told AFP.

Mr Matar Ismail, an activist in Damascus, disagreed, saying there was "a real need in the liberated areas for better administration of daily life".

"There are more than 10 million Syrians in liberated territories who need education and health services," coalition spokesman Walid al-Bunni told AFP.

"But should there not be an election (Monday), there will be a need for more discussion with (rebel) local councils and the Free Syrian Army groups fighting in Syria," he added.

Out of the 12 candidates, opposition sources said former agriculture minister Asaad Mustapha, economist Osama Kadi, and communications executive Ghassan Hitto were frontrunners for the vote.

Mr Kadi and Mr Hitto had a better chance than Mr Mustapha of winning the group's consensus, the Coalition's Nashar said.

Should they reach a consensus, those gathering in Istanbul are likely to pick a good administrator with long-standing ties to the uprising.

The Coalition agrees that the premier and his government would have to be based inside Syria, Mr Khaled al-Saleh told reporters "A Skype government is not going to work," he said.

"I can say that around 60 out of 73 Coalition members wants a government to be formed," Mr Saleh added.

Nations backing the rebels, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are likely to influence the choice.

"The prime minister must be a man who is completely with the revolution, and it is better that it be someone who was in Syria until recently," opposition figure Haytham al-Maleh said.

"There's a push to ensure the interim prime minister is a technocrat," another Coalition member told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Aleppo-born Kadi, founder of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington, is favoured for his technocratic background, as is Mr Hitto, who has lived in the United States for decades.

Mr Mustapha brings eight years of experience as a minister under Syria's former president Hafez al-Assad.

Several prominent opposition figures are not in the running, including Christian dissident Michel Kilo and former Syrian National Council chief Burhan Ghalioun.

The 73-member Coalition is expected to hold an initial vote, followed by a run-off between the top two candidates. The winner will then choose a cabinet, which must be approved by the Coalition.

The United States is believed to oppose the creation of an interim government, fearing it could hamper efforts to start a dialogue with the regime, but the process has been backed by Turkey and much of the Arab League.

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