Few people had heard of 49-year-old Ghassan Hitto prior to his appointment as head of the interim Syrian government.Hitto is an American citizen who lived in the United States for 30 years after arriving as a teenager.Until last year, he worked in telecommunications and lived outside Dallas with his children and his American-born wife Suzanne — who converted to Islam before they were married.
On March18, 2013, the Syrian National Coalition elected Hitto as prime minister of the interim government to administer the areas seized by rebel forces from the forces of President Bashar Assad.
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 US for decades and recently moved from Texas to Turkey to help coordinate aid to rebel-held areas.
A father of four, Hitto was most recently based on the outskirts of Dallas working as director of operations for telecoms supplier Inovar, where co-worker Arshad Syed remembers him as "honest" and "personable".
He left Syria in the early 1980s and received an MBA at Indiana Wesleyan University on top of a degree in computer science and mathematics from Purdue University in Indianapolis.
Strongly active in community groups, he was a member of the board of directors at the private Islamic school Bright Horizons Academy, in Garland, Texas, where his wife Suzanne still teaches English.
In November, he made the decision to get involved in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces — the international grouping that seeks to end Syria’s civil war on the condition that Assad is removed from power.
Characteristics and experience
Friends describe Hitto as “sincere” and “practical,” but the charismatic technocrat will need all the charm he can muster to unify Syria’s fragmented opposition. They also believe that he 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 madeHittoa 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.
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. 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 on March 18, 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 BasitSida, the former president of the Syrian National Council.
Hitto’s rapid rise has prompted questions about how the deadly conflict should end and has cast a light on infighting, fueled by regional countries purportedly supporting certain opposition figures.
The Free Syrian Army, one of the key rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces on the ground inside Syria, responded to Hitto’s appointment by refusing to recognize his authority.
“The situation there is so dire, I’m afraid for him,” said Mustafa Carroll, who worked alongside Hitto in Texas as a volunteer at Muslim advocacy groups. “It’s a big responsibility and it’s very complicated.”
“He’s a straight shooter, very sincere, very well-regarded and a very active community person,” said Carroll, who is director of the Houston chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations.
In an interview with CBS, Hitto said, “What we need from the US is surgical strikes of all the launching pads of Scud missiles. These locations are known to the intelligence community. That's one. We need the establishment of a no-fly zone. We need safe passages to be established so we can deliver aid to the Syrian people more effectively and more regularly.”
The Opposition divided
The first blow to the opposition Syrian National Coalition was the surprise resignation of its president,Mouaz al-Khatib, who said he was quitting in frustration over what he called lack of international support and constraints imposed by the body itself.
Reflecting the growing dissension over that move, the head of the Coalition's military branch, Gen. SalimIdris, said his group refused to recognize the new prime minister, a little-known IT professional from Texas, because he lacked broad support among the opposition.
"For the purpose of giving power to a prime minister to unite the revolutionary forces and lead the Syrian revolution toward certain victory, we unequivocally declare that the Free Syrian Army … conditions its support and cooperation on the achievement of a political agreement on the name of a prime minister," Idris said in an online video.
An aide to Idris, LouayAlmokdad, said many prominent Syrian opposition figures opposed the election of Hitto.
While al-Khatib's resignation surprised many Coalition members, some said it reflected problems that caused five other members to resign in the week following Hitto’s appointment.
Coalition member Rima Fleihan told The Associated Press in Cairo that the body did not accurately represent Syrians.
"We have problems internally with the structure of the Coalition and decisions being taken undemocratically," she said.
Another recently resigned member, Walid al-Bunni, accused the Gulf state of Qatar, which heavily finances the opposition, of using pressure to install its candidate for prime minister. Others have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of exercising outsized influence.