BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's main opposition group is launching its most serious attempt yet to form a rival government to President Bashar Assad's regime, convening in Turkey on Monday to choose an interim prime minister for areas the rebels control.
Twelve candidates are running, including economists, businessmen and a former Syrian Cabinet minister.
Some warn setting up such a government could close the door to negotiating an end to Syria's civil war and instead harden the battle lines even more.
Another obstacle is asserting the authority of a government picked by the largely exile-based opposition, especially in areas where Islamic extremist militias dominate.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition needs to take the reins in increasingly chaotic rebel-held areas where many services have broken down, but doing so means taking a political risk, said University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis.
"Obviously (the opposition) has been very frightened of trying, because it does not have a real social base on the ground, and it is worried that if it fails, it will get egg on its face," said Landis, who runs a blog called Syria Comment.
The deadlocked Syria conflict, which has claimed 70,000 lives and displaced about 4 million people, entered its third year this weekend.
Leading members of the coalition are meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, on Monday and Tuesday to pick a prime minister who would put together the interim government, said coalition spokesman Khalid Saleh. A vote is expected by Tuesday, he said.
Twelve candidates have been nominated, though the list could shrink if not all accept their nominations, Saleh said. The coalition released 10 names on Sunday but is not publishing the names of two contenders who live in areas under government control, he said.
Among the candidates are Osama Kadi, the coalition's economic adviser from London, Ontario in Canada; Ghassan Hitto, a longtime IT manager who recently moved from Dallas, Texas to Turkey; Assad Asheq Mustafa, a former Syrian agriculture minister and former governor of Syria's central Hama province, and Walid al-Zoabi, a real estate entrepreneur from Dubai.
Saleh described the candidates as technocrats. "Each has a minimum of 15 to 20 years of experience in his field," he said.
The 72 members of the coalition's general assembly are eligible to vote. If no candidate gets at least 37 votes in the first round, the top two would compete in a second round, Saleh said.
The Syrian government has portrayed those trying to topple it as foreign-led terrorists. The conflict erupted in 2011, initially as a largely peaceful uprising that, in the face of a harsh regime crackdown, turned into an armed insurgency and then into civil war.
Issam Khalil, a legislator from Assad's ruling Baath Party, echoed the regime's position that the opposition is pursuing foreign interests and is trying to "implode Syria from the inside." Those meeting in Istanbul want to intensify the conflict in Syria, not end it, he said Sunday.
The U.S. has been cool to the idea of a rival government in the rebel-held areas, saying the focus should be on a political transition.