Syrian opposition meets to choose prime minister

Syria's opposition coalition met in Istanbul on Monday to choose its first prime minister, whose job would be to administer those parts of the country freed from regime forces but mired in chaos and poverty.

A former Syrian agriculture minister, an economist and a communications executive lead the race ahead of a vote 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 international credibility as well as its reputation among dissidents on the ground, a rebel government would reduce chances of talks with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib had proposed in January.

"The regime refused that negotiation process, so that is something off the table at this point," said Coalition spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.

Pro-Assad daily Al-Watan was quick to slam the Coalition's bid to form a government, branding it "delirious and confused."

"The coalition has proven again that it is disconnected from reality and developments on the ground," it added.

Free Syrian Army chief Selim Idriss said they would support and "work under the umbrella of this government," reducing concerns that the rebels could from the outset be opposed to an interim civilian authority.

But he insisted that the interim government should be the "only legitimate government" and administer the whole of Syria, and not just the areas freed from regime forces.

"Any institutions not following this government would be considered to be acting illegitimately and would be prosecuted," Idriss told AFP.

Idriss also repeated calls to the West to arm the insurgents.

The Coalition cautioned there was no guarantee the vote for premier would take place as scheduled, with the process having been postponed before.

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.

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

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.

-- No 'Skype government' --

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.

Should the vote take place in time, "the prime minister will travel to Syria and hold a meeting with the heads of rebel groups, the Free Syrian Army's leadership and political personalities in the revolutionary movement," Coalition member Samir Nashar told AFP.

"They will discuss how far they are willing to accept the new prime minister's tasks. This may take some time."

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

Kadi and Hitto appeared better set than Mustafa of winning the group's consensus.

The Coalition agrees that the premier and his government would have to be based inside Syria, Saleh told reporters.

"A Skype government is not going to work," he said.

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.

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

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 Syrian conflict is now in its third year, with about 70,000 people killed and millions forced from their homes, according to the United Nations.