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.”