A Syrian exile coalition elected a Syrian-American from Texas early Tuesday to be the first prime minister of an interim government, charged with sending aid to rebels and offering an alternative to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Ghassan Hitto, 50, an information technology from Dallas, was chosen by the Syrian Opposition Coalition after months of contentious efforts to unite behind a leader, The New York Times reported, under pressure from the United States and its allies who wanted clear chains of command to direct aid to the rebels.
Hitto, who was little known in until his efforts to improve delivery of humanitarian aid, beat out Assad Mustafa, a former agriculturel minister.
"I give great thanks to the heroes and revolutionaries of the Syrian people. We are with you," Hitto told coalition members in brief remarks after he was named, Reuters reported.
Several senior coalition members, including tribal leader Ahmad Jarba and veteran opposition campaigners Walid al-Bunni and Kamal al-Labwani, withdrew before the vote to protest what they described as a hasty foreign-backed push to appoint Hitto.
But Hitto's supporters argued that he was a qualified manager untainted by the coalition's internal political struggles.
"A near-consensus emerged on Hitto. He is a practical man with management experience and is open to debate. He promised to consult widely before naming ministers and only appoint those with a long experience," said Mohammad Qaddah, the coalition's representative from Deraa, cradle of the two-year uprising.
Louay Safi, another coalition member, told Reuters Hitto is expected to form a government that includes defense and foreign ministers as well as a main focus on service portfolios.
"Basically this government is going to provide services to liberated areas," Safi said. “Hitto has the technical abilities that you expect from the technocrat but he also has a sense of politics and is a very good negotiator. He would be a good representative to the international community."
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 the country 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 controls little territory or funds yet will be held responsible for the fate of more than 1 million Syrian refugees and several times that number displaced inside the country.
“Welcome, government,” he said sardonically, according to the Times.
Hitto 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.”
Many nations have recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, so if Hitto can set up a Cabinet his government could try to claim Syria’s frozen state assets and other levers of power.
Hitto ruled out negotiations with Assad, another blow to wavering efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
Hitto and his wife, Suzanne, an American schoolteacher, have four children, all born in the United States, where Hitto advocated for Muslim Americans after 9/11 as a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
He spent more than a decade helping to run a small school for Islamic students, The Atlantic reports, founded the Shaam Relief fund for Syrian refugees in 2011 and worked as a senior executive for a local technology communications firm in Wayne, Texas. Hitto abruptly quit his job last November, according to AFP, "to join the ranks of the Syrian Revolution."
A video of Hitto speaking in Arabic can be seen below: