ISTANBUL -- After two days of meetings that lasted into the wee hours of Tuesday, Syrian opposition leaders elected a prime minister to lead their interim opposition government. But questions remained about the prime minister’s responsibilities and whether a government in exile would have any real influence inside Syria.
Ghassan Hitto, a Texas resident and a naturalized U.S. citizen who has lived in the United States since 1983, was named to the post by representatives of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the group of opponents to Syrian President Bashar Assad that the United States and many other countries recognize as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
But the greatest challenge facing Hitto, who has taken a sabbatical from the communications company where he works to coordinate aid deliveries inside Syria, will be currying favor with and uniting the disparate and often highly localized groups that are fighting the Syrian government and have begun administering rebel-held parts of the country.
“The first and fundamental priority is to bring down the government of Assad (and) to maximize our efforts to provide services as well as the basic needs for a life of dignity for the people,” Hitto said. “The temporary government will start working in the liberated areas and, under the umbrella of the coalition, will guide people along the path . . . toward carrying out free and transparent elections that would represent the ambitions of the Syrian people.”
Hitto also spoke of the need to begin providing government services, including courts and law enforcement, in rebel-held areas, as well as controlling border crossings with Turkey that are held by independent rebel groups, many of them made up of Islamist radicals who do not share Hitto’s interest in elections.
How Hitto and his coalition deals with those more radical groups will be a major measure of whether they can successfully claim leadership of Syria’s post-Assad government. The most effective rebel military groups aren’t part of the coalition, including Jabhat al Nusra, an organization the United States has declared to be a terrorist group and part of al Qaida in Iraq. Nusra, which is also known as the Nusra Front, has taken the lead in many of the rebels’ most recent successes.
On Monday, the coalition was briefed by Salim Idriss, the defected general who heads the Supreme Military Command, the umbrella organization that in theory controls military efforts in Syria’s 14 governorates. But the military councils appear to have less support, both materially and among the Syrian people, than do other groups, including Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, another Islamist fighting group.
Coalition members said Idriss provided specific information about what weapons had been distributed inside Syria and assured them that those weapons had not been passed off to more radical groups. But that assertion seemed unlikely; earlier this month, conservative Islamic fighting groups in Syria told McClatchy that rebel groups regularly share weapons, even those supposedly earmarked for non-Islamist groups.
Idriss said, however, that the rebels have received assurances that any errant weapons will be returned.
“We have promises to have all the weapons returned after the regime falls,” Idriss said. “We even have all the serial numbers.”
Until now, efforts to provide government services in rebel-held areas have been provided largely on an ad hoc basis, often by groups with a religious bent. Sharia courts have begun to appear across the country’s north, and the United Nations recently said that Nusra has been able to provide food and other assistance to civilians.
Hitto acknowledged that the opposition council would work with Nusra and other Islamists, at least for now.
“I don’t care about the length of the beards as long as they are fighting injustice,” Hitto said, referring to the long beards often worn by Islamist fighters.
The meeting took place against the backdrop of more chaos in Syria, with the Syrian government claiming that rebels had used chemical weapons near the country’s largest city, Aleppo. But there was no direct evidence that such weapons had been used by either side.
“We cannot confirm it,” said Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks casualties in the conflict. Abdurrahman said that his group had only been able to confirm that several people had died in the area in question, likely because of a rocket attack.
Meanwhile, Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee , and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced a proposal that would provide U.S. financial assistance to the Syrian opposition coalition, including non-lethal military assistance.