WASHINGTON -- The fractured Syrian opposition movement is considering ditching its prime minister at a meeting next week, action that would complicate the State Department’s push for peace talks and once again leave the international community without a clear idea of who would take charge should Bashar Assad fall.
The fate of Ghassan Hitto, the beleaguered premier of what was billed as a temporary government to lead a transition period, will be a key agenda item when the Syrian Opposition Coalition meets Thursday in Turkey. Members also will discuss whether to participate in the peace conference that Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to pull together in a renewed diplomatic effort toward negotiations to end the 2-year-old conflict.
Hitto’s ouster after just two months would deal a double blow to the State Department, which has spent more than $60 million to boost the credibility of the Syrian opposition. In April, the group’s first president, Mouaz al Khatib, stepped down after just five months in office, to be replaced by George Sabra.
U.S. diplomats have been pushing the fragmented anti-Assad movement toward a single body that would be poised to take over in the event of regime collapse and had hoped to identify credible, moderate partners to represent the opposition at the peace conference it hopes will take place next month in Geneva. The deep disarray that a leadership change is likely to engender could derail both those initiatives.
The State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment on Hitto’s prospects for remaining in office.
Two members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition separately confirmed to McClatchy what Arabic-language news reports have said for days: that Hitto is at great risk of being pushed out because his post has become mired in a tug of war between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over Syria’s future. The two Persian Gulf countries are major financiers of the opposition, but the Saudis have balked at Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that dominates the political opposition.
“There are some regional powers who are not in favor of appointing Mr. Hitto,” Walid Saffour, the opposition coalition’s political representative in Britain, said in a phone interview from London. “For now, he’s the elected prime minister, but I don’t know what will happen next week.”
For weeks, State Department officials have talked up Hitto, saying he’d sacrificed a comfortable life in Texas to join the fight against Assad and praising his willingness to cross into rebel-held territories in Syria when many exiled opposition figures won’t. However, the internal election that brought Hitto to power in March was problematic from the start, with many complaining that he was imposed by some combination of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and the United States.
Immediately after Hitto’s narrow victory in the coalition’s vote, several members suspended their membership and the armed wing of the group – the Free Syrian Army command – issued a statement that it opposed his election.
The U.S.-recognized rebel commander, defected Gen. Salim Idriss, since has reversed that stance, but tensions remain as many fighters and Syrians still in the country bristle at leadership from a naturalized U.S. citizen who returned to the region only recently and hasn’t shared their plight.
As Hitto assembles a shadow Cabinet, one of the most contentious slots is defense minister, because the Free Syrian Army wants a say over that post, opposition members and analysts said.
“There are these competing factions, and it’s not clear whether Hitto will survive very long,” said Shashank Joshi, a London-based analyst who monitors Syria for the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security research center.
Joshi met Hitto last month and said it quickly became clear why Hitto was favored by Western powers, who’ve struggled to find opposition figures that aren’t tied in some way to extremist groups.
“He was an American-accented technocrat who just spouted talking points: ‘If you don’t support us, it’s the jihadis,’ ” Joshi recalled. “He was very folksy. He’d make a good American politician.”
Hitto and his handlers appear keen to correct his image as a Westernized Johnny-come-lately. He’s crossed into Syria in a hands-on approach to building up local administrations in order to restore services and calm to opposition-controlled territory. And he’s traveled widely, giving interviews that highlight the Syrians’ suffering while conveniently dodging questions on such thorny topics as the extremists among rebel ranks or the lack of evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to chemical-weapons attacks.
But all that might not be enough to save him once the horse-trading begins next week in Istanbul, with the rival Syrian factions and their Persian Gulf backers negotiating anew on whether Hitto is the man to lead the Syrian opposition front, which seems as rudderless as it was a year ago. Opposition figures already are floating the name of a potential replacement: Ahmad Tomaa Kheder, a 46-year-old Islamist from eastern Syria.
“I know (Hitto) is still in the process of putting together his team and platform. He’ll have to get the confidence and support of the coalition and, if that’s not the case, the prospect of finding someone else is always open,” said Najib Ghadbian, the coalition’s political representative to the United States. “It seems we will have a very fluid couple of days.”