Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—49-year-old Ghassan Hitto, the newly-elected head of the interim Syrian government, enjoys two key advantages that the opposition can utilize to make significant advances in their quest to bring down the Syrian regime. First and foremost are his ties with the Syrian community in the US, and secondly is his Kurdish ethnicity, which rejects the accusation that the opposition excludes minorities.
These two distinguishing features ultimately made Hitto—who holds US citizenship—a viable candidate as Syria’s first elected prime minister since 1961. However, although he has been active in humanitarian and political spheres for quite some time, Hitto’s name was never mentioned seriously as a potential leader of the interim Syrian government. Likewise, no one observing the Syrian opposition situation predicted that he would emerge as an actual competitor to Osama Kadi or Asaad Mustapha.
Members of the Syrian National Coalition largely refer to Hitto as a “consensus candidate”, noting that he is highly respected by opposition Islamists, and also accepted by liberals in view of his successful professional and managerial record in America.
In the end, the votes of 35 coalition members (out of the total 48 members who voted) tilted the result in his favor. He won with the majority of the votes, and it is believed that his professional experience tipped the balance.
The Syrian National Coalition is the legitimate, political guardian of the Syrian opposition, in that it appoints the interim government and holds it to account, while the government works in accordance with its directives. Hence “the coalition members wanted to elect a ‘technocrat’ president for the government, whose professional experience goes beyond that of his political experience,” according to a senior source within the coalition.
The source told Asharq Al-Awsat that “(Hitto’s) past experience entitles him to hold the position, while the objections of those who abstained from voting stem from the fact that they did not listen enough to the candidates’ programs, they have no objection to Hitto himself.”
Few observers are aware of Hitto’s personal experience, much like his political experience. His support for the Syrian revolution began when the demonstrations first erupted in 2011, where he was actively involved in humanitarian and political circles. He participated in the establishment of the Coalition of Free Syria, where he served as vice president, and also held a similar position in the Shaam Relief Foundation in the US. Moreover, he is a founding member of the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), and a board member of the Syrian American Council.
Hitto also co-founded the Association of Legal Support for the Arab and Muslim Community, established in the US in 2001, aiming to defend personal and civil freedoms, and to combat discrimination against Arabs, Muslims, and Asians, especially after the 9/11 attacks.
Hitto’s American citizenship was largely unknown until the New York Times revealed it yesterday, announcing: “Syrian Rebels Pick US Citizen to Lead Interim Government”. This headline prompted activists on Facebook to play down the importance of Hitto’s dual nationality. Some commentators said there were those “seeking to fish in troubled waters”, or to use Hitto’s nationality to “target the Syrian revolution”.
Although Hitto speaks with an American accent and his demeanor gives the impression of a foreigner, he is known to be a devout Muslim. Syrian opposition sources have observed that Hitto has “won the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with the support of a large proportion of coalition members, hence entitling him to head the interim government.” In addition to the Brotherhood, Hitto has also won over the Syrian National Council, which provides 22 members for the Syrian National Coalition, as well as the support of local councils that “know Hitto well through his relief work”.
Hitto faces many challenges, the most prominent of which is to secure funding for the interim government. A member of the coalition, who declined to be named, told AFP that Hitto, by virtue of his work and activities in the US, possesses wide ranging diplomatic relations, which have proven “key to securing much-needed financial support for Syrians displaced by the conflict.”
However, Asharq Al-Awsat’s sources confirmed that Hitto’s diplomatic relations “may not be a source of funding for the interim government as much as his relations with the Syrian diaspora in the US. This community has a sizable financial capacity, and is determined to provide support.”
In addition, Hitto’s Kurdish ethnicity could prove another asset. According to a coalition source, “Hitto’s election disproves the accusation made against the Syrian opposition, namely that it excludes minorities.” He is the second Kurd to secure a prominent position within the Syrian opposition, after Abdul Basit Sida, the former president of the Syrian National Council.