BEIRUT -- The main Syrian opposition group is pushing to form a breakaway interim government to rein in chaotic rebel-held areas in the north. But it faces objections from within its own ranks amid fears that such a move is premature and could lead to the fragmentation of the country.
The differing views will be put to the test at a two-day meeting starting Monday in Istanbul, where supporters hope to name a prime minister to oversee the formation of an interim government. Two previous attempts were postponed over seemingly intractable differences. Organizers say consensus has been building as the Syrian civil war enters its third year.
"We are in desperate need for an interim government, a recognized civilian entity that can restore law and order and secure basic services to liberated areas," said Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. "Otherwise we are headed toward a very bad situation."
State institutions have all but collapsed in areas where the Syrian military withdrew, leaving many communities to fend for themselves with little electricity and sometimes no running water. Islamic courts have been set up to resolve local disputes, often one of the few vestiges of any sort of administration.
The idea of an interim government that would help administer the large swaths of land in the north and northeast that has been seized by the rebels has been floating around for more than a year, but divisions among members Assad's foes have kept it from happening. Opposition groups and even members of the same groups disagree over fundamental issues such as whether to hold negotiations with the regime or whether Assad should be allowed to be part of the transition.
It is unclear how much sway, if any, interim opposition leaders would hold over the rebels in Syria, where local units made up of tens of thousands of autonomous fighters have very little central organization or command structure.
But SNC officials say that as the opposition seizes more territory, the need for an interim government has become more pressing and consensus has been building on the need to control the growing chaos and lawlessness.
The U.S. has in the past been lukewarm to the idea of a unilateral announcement of an interim government by the divided Syrian opposition, saying the focus should be on uniting in a transitional government that could facilitate a handover of power and take over if Assad steps down. The international community endorsed a broad and ambiguous proposal last year calling for Assad supporters and opponents to propose representatives for the government, with each side able to veto candidates.
SNC leader Mouaz al-Khatib, a 52-year-old preacher turned activist has suggested that he himself is opposed to the formation of an interim government, fearing that it would deepen Syrian divisions.
"He and others are worried that a breakaway interim government would consecrate the country's divide between two governments, one in liberated territories and another in areas under Assad's control," al-Bunni said. "Either we convince him or he convinces us at the meeting in Istanbul."
Al-Khatib provoked a backlash last month when he offered to hold talks with members of the regime if it would help end the bloodshed, which the U.N. says has killed more than 70,000 people. His offer marked a departure from the mainstream opposition's insistence that Assad step down before any talks. That angered some of his colleagues who accused him of acting unilaterally.
Ahead of the Istanbul meeting, American and French diplomats said that the U.S., Russia and France are working together to try to bring the Syrian government and the SNC to the table together, hoping to reach agreement on a government with wide executive powers that would pave the way for a peaceful transition.
On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was trying to help foster a "preliminary conversation" among Syrians about how to fill a transitional government.
"We are not going to decide. The Syrians are going to decide," she told reporters. "We are encouraging the Russians to see if the Syrian government can put forward anybody who would be acceptable."
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Vincent Floreani echoed the U.S. position Thursday in an online briefing.
"The Syrian drama can only be solved by putting in place a political solution that passes by dialogue between the opposition and members of the regime who do not have blood on their hands," he said, adding that Assad himself could "not be a party to these discussions."
The comments came as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France and Britain are ready to help arm Syrian rebel fighters even if other European Union countries disagree.
Some international diplomats warn that more weapons are the last thing that Syria needs after the bitter violence that has wracked the country since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011 and eventually escalated into an armed rebellion in response to a brutal government crackdown of protests. Others believe that only when Assad feels militarily cornered would he agree to come to the negotiating table.
Fabius said France and Britain are pushing for an urgent EU meeting to try to persuade the bloc to lift an arms embargo on Syria. "Lifting the embargo is one of the only means left to make things move politically" in Syria, he said on France-Info radio.
While they welcomed the French and British comments Thursday, some Syrian opposition leaders accused the West of trying to "impose" an interim government that includes members of Assad's regime and said this should hasten formation of their own government.
"This is a very dangerous thing," said Bassam al-Dada, a Turkey-based Free Syrian Army official. "By agreeing to have any member of Assad's regime in an interim government, we would be giving the killer legitimacy."
But Mounzir Makhous, a coalition member who was appointed as ambassador to France in November, said an interim civilian government would not only help restore law and order, but it could work on freeing up frozen regime and state assets to help provide the rebels with weapons and pay their salaries.
It could also work on securing income and other support from strategic facilities recently seized by rebels in the north and east, including oil fields in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour and Hassakeh provinces near the Iraqi and Turkish borders, the country's biggest hyrdroelectric dam and grain silos.
Most war weary Syrians were skeptical, saying the Syrian opposition has lost credibility because of the constant bickering.
"For God's sake I beg you, for once agree on something, this is not the time for disputes. People are dying," said one response to the meeting's announcement on the SNC's Facebook page.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Washington and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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There are about 120,000 Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkish camps, with up to 70,000 more living in Turkey outside the camps. Thousands more wait at the border, held up as Turkey struggles to cope with the influx. Turkey also hosts much of the opposition and rebel leadership. <em>Caption: A Syrian-Kurdish woman refugee sits in the courtyard of a house in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, bordering Syria, on November 10, 2012. (PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Turkey has called for a buffer zone in Syria where the opposition and civilians would be protected, a step that would likely require international enforcement of a no-fly zone. Russia and China have blocked robust moves against the Syrian regime at the U.N. Security Council, and the United States has been reluctant to use its military in another Mideast conflict. <em>Caption: Turkish soldiers patrols as Syrian nationals pass the border between Syria and Turkey on November 10, 2012, near the town of Ceylanpinar. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Israel on Monday became the second country to strike the Syrian military, after Turkey. An Israeli tank hit a Syrian armored vehicle after shells from fighting in Syria exploded in Israel-controlled Golan Heights. A day earlier, Israel fired a warning shot near a group of Syrian fighters. <em>Caption: Israeli tanks, one in position, the other getting into a firing position in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian village of Bariqa, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)</em>
Syrian shells have exploded inside the Golan several times in recent weeks damaging apple orchards, sparking fires and spreading panic but causing no injuries. In early November, three Syrian tanks entered the Golan demilitarized zone, and in a separate incident an Israeli patrol vehicle was peppered with bullets fired from Syria; no one was hurt in the incident and the Israeli military deemed it accidental. <em>Caption: Smoke rises after shells fired by the Syrian army explode in the Syrian village of Bariqa, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)</em>
There is concern in Israel that Assad may try to spark a conflict with Israel, opening up the potential for attacks by Lebanon's militant Hezbollah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel has also warned that Syria's chemical weapons could be turned on the Jewish state. Still, while no friend of Assad, Israel is also worried that if he is toppled, Syria could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or descend into sectarian warfare. <em>Caption: Israeli troops and UN peacekeepers inspect on November 8, 2012 the area where three mortar shells fired from Syria landed in Alonei Habashan in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967. (JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Mortars and shells from the Syrian side regularly crash in Lebanon, causing several casualties, though Lebanese forces have never fired back. More dangerously, Syria's conflict has heightened deep rivalries and sectarian tensions in its smaller neighbor. Lebanon is divided between pro-Assad and anti-Assad factions, a legacy of the nearly three decades when Damascus all but ruled Lebanon, until 2005. Assad's ally, the Hezbollah militia is Lebanon's strongest political and military movement. <em>Caption: Lebanese army commandos deploy in the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods where clashes are taking place between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli on October 23, 2012. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
On Oct. 19, a car bomb assassinated Lebanon's top intelligence chief, Wissam al-Hassan. Many in Lebanon blamed Syria and Hezbollah for the assassination. The northern Lebanese city of Tripoli has seen repeated clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites – the Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs. Battles in the city in May and August killed at least 23 people total and wounded dozens. <em>Caption: A memorial poster of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was assassinated Friday, hangs near the spot Friday's car bomb attack that killed Al-Hassan, in the Achrafieh district of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)</em>
The kidnapping of Lebanese Shiites in Syria by rebels has also had repercussions in Lebanon. In May, Shiites blocked roads and burned tires in protest over the abductions, and later in the summer a powerful Shiite clan took 20 Syrians and a Turk in Lebanon captive in retaliation, all of whom have since been released. Lebanon also shelters about 100,000 Syrian refugees. <em>Caption: A Syrian man Firas Qamro, 31, who was injured during clashes that erupted between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)</em>
Jordan has taken the brunt of the refugee exodus from Syria, with some 265,000 Syrians fleeing across the border. Around 42,000 of them are housed at Zaatari, a dust-filled refugee camp, where riots have broken out several times by Syrians angry over lack of services. A growing number of stray Syrian missiles have fallen on Jordanian villages in the north in recent weeks, wounding several civilians. <em>Caption: In this Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 photo, a Jordanian army vehicle carries Syrian refugees who have fled violence in their country having crossed into Jordanian territory with their families near the town of Ramtha. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)</em>
Late last month, a Jordanian border patrol officer was killed in clashes with eight militants trying to cross into Syria. Hours earlier, Jordan announced the arrest of 11 suspected al-Qaida-linked militants allegedly planning to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions in Jordan. <em>Caption: Jordanian border soldiers guard newly-arrived Syrian refugee families after they crossed the border from Tal Shehab city in Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River valley, into Thnebeh town, in Ramtha , Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo / Mohammad Hannon)</em>
Sunni and Shiite fighters from Iraq have made their way to Syria to join the civil war – the former on the side of the opposition, the latter siding with Assad's regime, according to Iraqi officials and Shiite militants. Sunni al-Qaida fighters are believed to be moving between Iraq and Syria, and some al-Qaida fighters in Iraq's western Anbar province have regrouped under the name of the Free Iraqi Army, a nod to the rebels' Free Syrian Army, Iraqi officials say. <em>Caption: In this Saturday, March 17, 2012 file photo, Syrian security officers gather in front the damaged building of the aviation intelligence department, which was attacked by one of two explosions in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi, File)</em>
About 49,000 Syrian refugees have temporarily resettled in Iraq, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The United States has pressured Baghdad to stop Iranian planes suspected of ferrying arms to Syria from using Iraqi airspace. Iraq has so far acknowledged only forcing two planes to land for inspection and said it didn't find any weapons either time. <em>Caption: Syrian refugees rest as they have crossed the border by the Iraqi town of Qaim, 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)</em>