Syrian Opposition Group Elects New Leader, Seeks International Recognition

The Syrian opposition said its latest moves are meant to lay the groundwork for a new government after President Bashar Assad’s regime is toppled.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The Syrian National Council, the umbrella coalition of Syrian opposition groups, elected Ghassan Hitto as leader of the transitional government last night in Istanbul, with 35 out of its 49 members in favor.

The Damascus-born Hitto, 49, spent his childhood in the United States and was a high-tech and communications executive until March 2011 when, after the start of the uprising in Syria, he joined the opposition.

Hitto established a number of organizations to provide humanitarian aid to refugees and other Syrians. His supporters describe him as a man who can get things done, especially in the areas of Syria now under rebel control. However, opponents say he has an American outlook and that choosing him conveys a message to the U.S. government and the West that the new government will be pro-Western.

Nevertheless, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat reported that the United States had exerted pressure to delay the election, while certain Arab countries, mainly Qatar and Saudi Arabia, pushed for the choice of Hitto.

The election comes after the Arab League’s recent call for the Syrian opposition to select a prime minister or an executive forum as a condition for allowing the league’s members to provide military assistance to the rebels. The Syrian opposition said its latest moves are temporary and are meant to lay the groundwork for a new government after President Bashar Assad’s regime is toppled.

According to assessments in Syria, the temporary government will find it difficult to operate if it does not gain approval and assistance from the international community. One of the key issues is the amount of control extreme Islamist groups like Jabet Al Nusra, an arm of Al-Qaida, have in Syria. Jabet Al Nusra does not submit to the coalition’s authority and is administering some areas of Syria quasi-independently according to Islamic law.

Another question is the extent of American involvement, particularly following statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, who said he supported dialogue between the opposition and the regime in Syria and statements from the U.S. administration indicating that Assad’s regime should fall.

The London Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat reported Tuesday morning that Assad’s senior advisor Bouthaina Shaaban is on her way back to Damascus from Dubai, dispelling speculation that she had abandoned Syria to join Assad’s sister and wife.

The media widely circulated photos Sunday showing Assad’s wife and two sons taking part in a charity event for widows of Syrian soldiers killed in the past two years.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime received an indirect boost Monday when the Catholic archbishops of the Middle East met in Lebanon and called for a resolution of the conflict in Syria through dialogue. They demanded that the new pope, Francis, intervene in the conflict and in matters of the Church in the Middle East to protect Christianity in the region.

A Syrian girl rides her bicycle in an almost deserted street in the Teshrin neighborhood of the Qabun area in Damascus on January 3, 2013.Credit: AFP

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