The Texan Leader of the Syrian Rebels

Jamie Dettmer reports on the election of Ghassan Hitto as interim prime minister for the Syrian opposition.

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty

A dozen members of the Syrian opposition have frozen their membership of the rebel council that earlier this week picked Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-born naturalized American, as an interim prime minister for rebel-held territory in the country.

The walkout underscores the monumental task facing the 50-year-old former IT executive in trying to unite the fractious rebels who for two years have battled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war that has become more desperate and brutal with each passing day.

Seeking to exploit simmering divisions within the Syrian opposition, the Assad-directed Damascus media has maintained a drumbeat of criticism of Hitto, dubbing him an Islamist puppet in league with Washington DC—a charge some critics within the rebel movement have also leveled against him.

For more secular-minded rebels, Hitto is held in suspicion because he received the backing of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood at the fraught election in Istanbul on March 18. He was voted the interim premier by 35 votes to 49 after a day of fierce argument with some members opposing his election walking out before the formal vote.

The rebel coalition has come under considerable pressure from the U.S. and Gulf countries to form an interim government and establish chains of command in the rebel-controlled enclaves as a pre-condition for providing more aid to the insurgency. The dozen SNC members who have frozen their membership include spokesman Walid al-Bunni, although another, feminist icon Soheir Atassi, subsequently rejoined the coalition.

The Syrian daily newspaper Al-Watan, a mouthpiece of the Assad regime, mocked Hitto “as someone who parachuted down from the sky and who doesn’t know anything about Syria. He left at the age of 17 to run away from performing his military service to move to the United States.”

And the newspaper Tishrin accused Hitto of being a pawn of foreign powers, the choice of a “Turkish-Saudi-Qatari conspiracy.”

Salman Shaikh, a Middle East scholar with the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution thinks the selection of Hitto—and more particularly the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the pick—could pull against unifying the rebels. “I have heard both Syrian nationalist figures and those from some minority communities—inside and outside the country—talk dismissively about the move,” he blogged.

“For them, Hitto is a pawn of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. There is a sense that Hitto’s appointment has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, assisted by key regional actors, to walk in through the front door and assume control of Syria’s opposition movement.”

Hitto, a Kurd, was born in Damascus in 1963 but left the country with his parents at the age of 17 and received his university education in the U.S., graduating from Indiana’s Purdue University in mathematics and computer science and earning an MBA at Indiana Wesleyan University. He has worked as a senior executive for technology and communication companies and for the past few years has lived in Wayne, Texas, working at a telecom firm. He has the reputation of being a devout Muslim with Islamist leanings.

He became politically active in the wake of 9/11, joining the Council on American-Islamic Relations and advocating for Islamic-related causes. He has served on the board of the Islamic private school Brighter Horizons Academy in Garland, where his U.S.-born wife, Suzanne, teaches. The school describes itself as “an educational institution conducive to an Islamic learning environment.” He founded the Coalition of Free Syria activist group in 2011, and joined the Syrian American Council last year.

He is the father of four children, one of whom, 25-year-old Obaida, left ahead of his father for Syria last summer to join the rebel cause. “Obaida, bless his heart, made up his mind,” Hitto told The New York Times in October. He followed his son a few weeks later to work for the opposition and focusing on the delivery of humanitarian aid.

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Hitto is known as a problem-solver and impressed other opposition figures and Western diplomats with his quick grasp of the humanitarian crisis in northern Syria when working on a refugee assessment with the U.S. Office of Disaster Assistance and the United Kingdom’s Department of International Development.

“He is a highly practical man with a quick analytical brain,” says a British diplomat who has worked closely with Hitto.

In an interview last year with Voice of America, Hitto focused on the suffering of Syrian civilians in the conflict, arguing: “The Assad regime and his forces, they have been bombing the infrastructure with intent” and are “destroying power, water, sanitation, refuse collection and public health services.” He was critical of the UN, maintaining there “isn’t enough aid to make the impact we would all like to see. Right now the amount of aid that is going to the Syrian people doesn’t satisfy the current need of the Syrian people. It doesn’t even come close.”

Western and Gulf governments have offered their support for Hitto’s election. Nabil Elaraby, secretary-general of the Arab League, says Hitto’s election is “the culmination of efforts to unite the forces of the Syrian government and reach agreement on common political ground.”

But several commanders of armed rebel brigades fighting on the ground appear to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude, one similar to the position of many brigades in the Free Syrian Army towards the Syrian National Council itself since it was formed in the autumn at the insistence of the Obama administration and the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Rebel commanders in the past have questioned the credentials of leaders based outside the country in neighboring Turkey and have shrugged off their administrative efforts as interference. “The FSA is not happy with the national coalition; it is an agent of the West and the Qataris,” says one senior field commander. “We don’t trust the leaders—most are exiles, and they are not here fighting. We’ll go along with the coalition for now, but if it looks like they are out for themselves and just want to get rich, we are ready to fight them as well.”

Hitto’s election comes at an especially critical time for the FSA. The loosely knit rebel commanders are becoming even less united and seem to have lost the initiative on the battlefield to Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadist militia that has evolved into the most effective rebel formation fighting to oust Assad.

Al-Nusra, which has launched more than 30 successful bombing attacks against mainly government military targets, sometimes using suicide bombers, has been tagged a terrorist organization by the Obama administration because of its links with al Qaeda. It has been enjoying growing cachet among Syrian rebels and civilians from recent operational accomplishments on the battlefield and has been in the vanguard of many successful full-scale rebel clashes with Assad forces.

The rise of al-Nusra has alarmed Western leaders worried about the direction of the long-running civil war that’s claimed more than 70,000 lives, say U.S. and European security sources. It has complicated Western thinking about whether and how to supply arms to the rebels. And in recent weeks al-Nusra’s growing determination to set up its own administrative structure in rebel enclaves, especially in the city of Aleppo, has added to Western and secular rebel anxiety.

In recent interviews with The Daily Beast, FSA commanders and their men in rebel towns to the north of Aleppo voiced sympathy for al-Nusra, eulogizing the jihadist prowess and competence. “It is not a terrorist group,” said Abu Hadi, a former high-school teacher who led the rebellion against Assad in the town of Iaziz, near the Turkish border. “Their fighters are effective, and the West should stop using them as an excuse for not arming us,” Hadi said.

How Hitto fares in the immediate weeks will depend on whether he’s successful in building a cabinet that can bridge divisions within the opposition coalition and end the squabbling, say European diplomatic sources. One of the key divisions within the opposition is over whether rebels should engage in a dialogue with the Assad regime. Moaz al-Khatib, the SNC president, had supported the idea of dialogue, a position opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, and an approach Hitto himself is also against.