As the Syrian uprising approaches its second year surely it is fair, with the passage of so much time, to pose a question: what good is an opposition that is not prepared to govern? 

The occasion for the question is yet another decision, if one could call it that, by the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) to postpone the formation of a provisional government. According to one prominent opposition figure, the SOC is split over whether to name a government now so as to preclude any future governing role for the Assad regime, or wait for United Nations (UN) and Arab League Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi to arrange opposition-government transition talks in accordance with the June 2012 Geneva agreement reached by the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom.

It is a false, though understandable choice. There is no reason why a provisional government, with strong support from the Friends of the Syrian People, could not establish itself as the legitimate Syrian government on liberated Syrian territory and still negotiate with a regime-designated team to establish a national unity government enjoying full executive powers over the entire country. No reason, that is, except for the reluctance of the United States and United Kingdom to see the opposition go down that path.

That reluctance is also understandable, though profoundly regrettable. British and American officials take the position that the establishment on Syrian soil of a government—especially one that would receive near-universal recognition as Syria’s legal government—would produce two bad results: it would preclude the transition talks envisioned by the Geneva agreement; and it could cause Syria’s existing ministries and government offices to collapse, pouring tens of thousands of unemployed officials onto an already moribund economy and perilous security situation. One can imagine a blunt Anglo-American warning to the opposition, one that would resonate in the ears of Syrians: “We don’t want to create another Iraq.”

Although it is understandable that continuity of government is a high priority for anyone wishing to minimize the possibility of a 2003 Iraq-like catastrophic meltdown, it is simply not true that the establishment of an alternate government on Syrian territory would either violate a principle worth preserving or cause a meltdown worth avoiding. Such a government could (and should) make clear from the outset its readiness to negotiate the composition and program of a fully empowered transitional national unity government, and its intention to keep government employees (including security forces) on the payroll for whatever agreed period of time defines the word “transitional.”

In short, there is no reason why a government, as opposed to an opposition, could not be the interlocutor with regime-designated negotiators in talks aimed at producing the peaceful, managed, and complete regime change transition agreed to by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council at Geneva last year. British and American reluctance on this score has less to do with who does the talking and the implications for continuity of government than it does with their own preparedness to take the next step on Syria.

As noted elsewhere, an opposition-formed government operating in Syria will require substantial assistance. Recognition by scores of countries and credentialing as Syria’s government at the UN and other international organizations will not be enough to enable such a government to govern successfully. Such a government will need fiscal resources. It will need on-the-ground technical assistance and advice. It may well need help in self-defense. Are the United States and its allies ready to cross this Rubicon?  If they are, it is far from clear to the Syrian opposition.

Indeed, the failure of the SOC to take the next step in forming a government suggests that Washington and London are not yet ready to take the lead within the Friends of the Syrian People core group to help prepare the SOC enter Syria with substantial international backing as a government: a government enfolding the Supreme Military Council and local committees, one standing for a Syria of non-sectarian citizenship, civil society, and rule of law. Absent this clear leadership is it any wonder that the SOC keeps postponing the naming of a provisional government?  A government-in-exile would be useless. A government in Syria without strong backing would be suicidal. Assad, after all, has Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia on his side.

The human toll associated with unreadiness is staggering. Much of the substantial US monetary commitment to Syrian humanitarian assistance is channeled through the UN system, and while the UN is able to do impressive work among refugees outside Syria, it is obliged inside Syria to work only in coordination with the government still recognized by the international community as the de jure government of Syria. This is a government existing for one purpose: the implementation of the orders of a criminal conspiracy (i.e., the Assad regime). Whatever the merit of keeping governmental officials on the public payroll during an interim phase and perhaps beyond, can there be any justification at all for the continued recognition of a Syrian Arab Republic government that is an order taker for men willing to commit grotesque crimes against humanity to preserve power, particularly when that recognition precludes, as a practical matter, the delivery of UN humanitarian assistance to those parts of Syria on the receiving end of those crimes?

So, what good is an opposition that is not prepared to govern? None. An opposition not prepared, after all of this time, to govern inside Syria is an opposition that has no objective value.

Still, there is no point to a government-in-exile. And there is even less point to what could amount to an inside Syria suicide pact. No doubt there are fissures within the SOC and inside the opposition broadly that will make the formation of a real government problematical, even under the best of circumstance. Yet without the requisite support of the international community, no serious effort can or will be made to create the definitive, on-the-ground alternative to a criminal regime: an alternate government fully capable of negotiating the composition and program of a transitional government of national unity that would send the regime packing. Without the leadership of the United States and other countries at the core of the Friends of the Syrian People Group, it simply will not happen. In the timeless words of 1 Corinthians, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former special advisor for transition in Syria at the US Department of State.

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