Syrian Rebels Pick U.S. Citizen to Lead Interim Government

Syria’s main exile opposition coalition elected a naturalized Syrian-born American citizen early Tuesday to be the first prime minister of an interim Syrian government, charged with funneling aid to rebels inside Syria and offering an alternative to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
By choosing Ghassan Hitto, 50, an information technology executive who lived in Texas until recently, the Syrian opposition coalition concluded months of contentious efforts to unite behind a leader, under pressure from the United States and its allies, which demanded that the opposition set up clear chains of command as a condition of increasing aid to the rebels.
Mr. Hitto, a relative unknown in opposition politics who rose to prominence recently through efforts to improve the delivery of humanitarian aid, was far from a unanimous choice. After a day of maneuvering and voting on Monday that lasted into early Tuesday, he won 35 votes, just three more than Assad Mustafa, a former agricultural minister under Mr. Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad.
Mr. Hitto faces formidable challenges in his quest to to establish administrative authority over areas of northern Syria that have been secured by the rebels.
Mr. Assad’s air force still rules the skies, so any attempt to govern from those rebel-held areas risks the constant threat of airstrikes. And antigovernment fighters and activists inside Syria, who have long complained that the coalition offered little concrete help and had little connection to the struggle on the ground, remain skeptical of any interim government based outside the country.
Even opposition leaders outside Syria are divided on whether an interim government makes sense. Fahed al-Masri, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army’s unified command, questioned how a government could function when it controlled little territory or money yet would be held responsible for the fate of more than one million Syrian refugees and several times that number displaced inside the country.
“Welcome, government,” Mr. Masri said sardonically.
Mr. Hitto — who ruled out negotiations with Mr. Assad, another blow to wavering efforts to find a political solution — has argued that forming a government would help keep Syria from slipping further into chaos.
“There is always a possibility that this regime might fall suddenly,” he said, in a video posted on YouTube to announce his candidacy. “And we can’t avoid a political vacuum in the country and the ensuing chaos unless there is a transitional government.”
He called for “a government of institutions and law” that would be accountable and transparent.
The stakes are high. Many nations have recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, meaning that if Mr. Hitto is able to form a cabinet, which is far from certain given the group’s fractiousness, his government could try to claim Syria’s frozen state assets and other levers of power.
With his many years in Texas, Mr. Hitto may seem like an unusual selection to lead a government struggling to establish street credibility with rebels — or an uprising facing allegations from Mr. Assad’s supporters that it is an American creation.
But he said he could not resist getting involved, especially after his son Obaida, 25, sneaked off to Syria and joined rebel fighters to shoot videos, deliver humanitarian aid and spread word of their struggle.
Mr. Hitto and his wife, Suzanne, an American schoolteacher, have four children, all born in the United States, where Mr. Hitto advocated for Muslim Americans after 9/11 as a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
He traveled to the Middle East last fall to learn more and never went back. “I have a career back home that I’m in the process of destroying,” he said jovially over lunch recently in Istanbul.
In his role heading the humanitarian aid arm of the coalition under Suhair Atassi, a coalition vice president and respected activist from Damascus, Mr. Hitto quickly came into close contact with American and other foreign officials. Frustrated with what he saw as anemic and disorganized international efforts to aid displaced Syrians, he hired internationally known aid consultants to do a survey that found that the number of needy people in six Syrian provinces was more than 50 percent higher than United Nations estimates.
He described himself as a zealous but diplomatic advocate trying to push international donors to give the coalition a bigger role in the delivery of aid. “As an American,” he said, he wanted the United States to do more to support the rebels.
Born in Damascus, Mr. Hitto left Syria in the early 1980s and received an M.B.A. at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is of Kurdish descent, which the council may have seen as a plus since it has been criticized for not reaching out more to Syria’s minorities.
Some council members said Mr. Hitto was the choice of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has long been banned and persecuted under the Assad family’s government and that plays a powerful role in the coalition. That could give him credibility among some in the Sunni Muslim-dominated uprising, but it also concerns some opposition members who feel the Brotherhood already wields disproportionate sway. Brotherhood leaders say they seek a civil, not an Islamic, state, but some in the opposition worry that it will impose a religious agenda.
One activist from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect said the Brotherhood was “trying to stab the revolution once more.”
Another, Yamen Hseen, said that an interim government running northern Syria smacked of dividing the country.
“A government formed abroad, consisting of people we don’t know, nor the mechanism by which they were picked, it just makes me worry,” he said. “I think it is a result of other countries’ demands and not the demands and needs of the people and the revolution.”
The announcement that Mr. Hitto had won came hours after Syrian planes fired at a sparsely populated area near the town of Arsal in eastern Lebanon, the first time the military used its air force to strike at suspected rebel hide-outs in Lebanon. The Wadi al-Khayl Valley area is known for its porous border. It is considered a haven for Syrian insurgents, and the civilian population there largely opposes Mr. Assad.
The Syrian government warned on Thursday that it might fire into Lebanon because of incursions by rebel fighters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.