ISTANBUL – Syria’s opposition coalition early today elected an 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 waited until the early morning 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 the first priority of his interim government would be, he said: “We’ll talk about that tomorrow.”
Coalition members hope the new government will unite the rebels fighting Assad’s forces 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.
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 gap 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.
“You have to find a way to cooperate with these groups and you can only rule by providing services, which requires funding,” Shishakly said.
Hitto also does not begin his tenure with a resounding mandate form the coalition. Of the group’s 63 active members, only 48 voted. Four cast blank ballots and Hitto received 35 of the remaining votes. In the confusion following the vote count, coalition members briefly said 49 votes had been cast before returning the number to the 48 originally announced.
Syria’s conflict began with political protests in March 2011, and has since spiraled into a civil war, with hundreds of rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces across the country. The U.N. says more than 70,000 people have been killed and millions pushed from their homes by the violence.