ISTANBUL – Syria’s opposition coalition early today elected a little-known American-educated IT manager and Islamic activist to head an interim government to administer the areas seized by rebel forces from the forces of President Bashar Assad.
Ghassan Hitto received 35 votes out of 48 ballots cast by the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s 63 active members during a meeting in Istanbul. The results were read aloud by coalition member Hisham Marwa to applause from a few dozen of his colleagues who had waited until after 1 a.m. to hear the results.
“I miss my wife and children and I look forward to seeing them soon,” said Hitto, who has lived in the United States for decades and recently moved from Texas to Turkey to help coordinate aid to rebel-held areas.
When asked what his interim government’s first priority would be, Hitto said he planned to give a speech later today outlining his plans.
Coalition members hope the new government will unite the rebels fighting Assad’s forces on the ground and provide services to Syrians living in rebel-held areas, many of which have been battered by the country’s civil war and suffer acute shortages of food, electricity and medical services.
But the new government faces huge challenges, starting with its ability to gain recognition from rebel factions on the ground. As rebels have progressed in northern and eastern Syria, a patchwork of rebel groups and local councils have sought to fill the void left by the government’s withdrawal by organizing security patrols, reopening bakeries and running courts and prisons. It is unclear if these groups, many of which have taken charge of their own towns, will accept an outside authority, especially if it is headed by someone who has spent decades abroad.
“How can a civilian come and tell these fighters on the ground, ‘Drop your weapons. It’s my turn to rule’?” asked Adib Shishakly, the coalition’s representative to a group of Gulf nations known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, before the results were announced.
Hitto’s election follows two failed attempts to form interim governments due to opposition infighting. Coalition members also say they received insufficient international support to allow them to project their authority to groups inside Syria. The new government could have the same problem.
The council’s creation of an interim government renders even more remote the chances of ending the war through negotiations with Assad’s government – the preferred solution of the U.S. and other world powers.
The U.S. has been cool to the idea of a rebel government to rival Assad’s and supports a peace plan put forward by the U.N. and the Arab League that calls for the formation of a transitional government that represents the regime and the opposition.