The work of the interim government stagnated over the intervening three months, as international donors hesitated to give funds to an institution without clear leadership. "I would say the current situation is not very good — it's quite sad, actually," said Ghassan Hitto, who was appointed as the interim government's first prime minister in March, before being forced to resign in July due to opposition by Saudi-backed figures. "Our friends, those who otherwise would want to support the government, they have put a lot of things on pause."
The tussle in Urfa shows how the exiled opposition is struggling even to win the trust of Syrians who should be its natural allies — in this case, FSA fighters from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor who had been driven from their homes by the Islamic State. The confrontation stemmed from a promise by the interim government to distribute $150 to each injured FSA fighter in the city. The rebels contend that they compiled 343 names of injured fighters and gave the list to the interim government. When the government drew up the final list, however, the fighters said that some of those names had been deleted and replaced with roughly 50 people whom they had never heard of before. They argued that the interim government officials had manufactured those names to pocket the money for themselves — approximately $7,500
"From the big one to the small one, they are thieves," Mohammed said. "They don't want to do anything for people; they just want to take the money."
An official with the interim government, speaking on condition of anonymity, had a different story. The official said that the interim government had informed the rebels that it only had enough money for 300 fighters, and the different brigades would need to reach an agreement among themselves over which fighters would make it onto the list. The dispute broke out, the official said, when the brigades could not come to an agreement over how the money would be distributed.
When Hitto came into office, he had ambitious plans to transform the interim government into an institution that could administer freed areas in northern Syria. However, those plans were soon dramatically curtailed under his successors, while the coalition's internal political battles prevented the emergence of strong leadership that could drum up significant funding. As a result, the interim government is a body that is still almost entirely based in Turkey.
"I believe one of the errors that were made by the interim government was, for some odd reason, that they thought they could have an effective government outside of Syria," said Hitto. "If you go [to the FSA] and tell them, 'Listen, you go fight Assad, you go protect our cities, and we're going to take care of all the civil work,' that'll work. I went inside Syria and I tried this several times — every conversation, not a single time people resisted."
Hitto said that a properly funded and supported interim government could have been a tool in the international effort against the Islamic State, by providing an alternative to the jihadist groups. What's more, he argued, it would have given the anti-Assad forces leverage in their negotiations with the Syrian regime, by showing that Damascus is not the only authority capable of administering territory. "Having an interim government gives the opposition not a set of teeth, but it gives them a tooth or two," Hitto said. "At least something to get a negotiation started."
Some of the opposition coalition's forays into providing humanitarian support in Syria, however, have only caused more problems. Last month, at least 15 children died after receiving vaccinations for measles that had been distributed by the opposition coalition. The vaccine had been improperly mixed with muscle relaxant; the World Health Organization blamed "human error" for the mistake. The coalition responded by firing five officials, including Suheir al-Atassi, the head of the coalition's Assistance Coordination Unit, which is charged with distributing humanitarian assistance inside Syria. Atassi hit back with a lengthy Facebook post arguing that her dismissal was invalid, and accused the opposition leadership of "exploiting the death of innocent children in the internal struggles within the coalition."
"Did we really expect opposition politics to be characterized by trust, openness, loyalty, and selfless teamwork?"
Hof said that rather than focusing on the Syrian coalition's failings, President Barack Obama's administration should be asking whether it did everything possible to give the moderate opposition a chance to succeed. "If we want the Syrian National Coalition to be an effective part of the anti-ISIL coalition, we'll help it get into Syria," he said. "If we want to bind anti-Assad Syrians to our anti-ISIL efforts, we'll engage ISIL elements attacking nationalist forces and we'll ground Assad's air force. The challenge is less one of opposition dysfunction than it is our own."