ISTANBUL – Syria’s opposition coalition has elected Ghassan Hitto, a communications executive with Islamist leanings who has lived in the United States, as prime minister for Syrian rebel-held territory mired in chaos and poverty.
“Ghassan Hitto has won,” Syrian National Coalition member Hisham Marwa said late Monday, adding that the winning candidate took 35 out of 49 votes.
The vote came after 14 hours of closed-door consultations among 70-odd Syrian National Coalition members, with some describing Hitto as a consensus candidate pleasing both the opposition’s Islamist and liberal factions.
But other Syrian National Coalition members withdrew from the consultations before the vote could take place, reflecting divisions within Syria’s opposition.
When the voting finally happened, the remaining Syrian National Coalition members placed their ballots in a transparent box located at the front of a conference hall in an Istanbul hotel, where the much-awaited meeting took place.
“This is a transparent, democratic vote,” Syrian National Coalition chief Moaz al-Khatib said.
Hitto arrived in the conference hall minutes after the count, and was met with a round of applause.
“We say to you (the Syrian people) that we are with you and that, God willing, we are victorious” over President Bashar Assad’s regime, Hitto said. “We will announce this government’s program soon.”
Syrian National Coalition members say the prime minister’s first task will be to form an interim government, which he should put to vote to the group’s general assembly.
Hitto plans to be based inside rebel-held Syrian territory, from where he and his future government will help administer chunks of territory that have slipped out of regime control but into poverty and insecurity.
Hitto’s resume touts 25 years of experience with high-tech and telecommunications companies, including 16 years in executive management roles.
Last November, he abruptly quit his job “to join the ranks of the Syrian revolution.”
Until recently, Hitto headed the Syrian National Coalition’s humanitarian assistance arm — the Turkey-based Assistance Coordination Unit, where he did “a stellar job,” according to opposition spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.
Supporters have praised his knack for building diplomatic ties that have been key to secure much-needed financial support for Syrians displaced by the conflict.
Reflecting the opposition’s divisions, the group only went forward with the vote when the candidacies of two other key contenders — economist Osama al-Kadi and Salem al-Moslet — were dropped.
Still, the vote could change the course of Syria’s civil war, and opponents in Istanbul hoped it would attract much-needed weapons and humanitarian aid from the international community.
Hours before the vote, Syria’s conflict took a new turn with the loyalist air force being accused of bombing the border area between Syria and Lebanon.
Warplanes reportedly targeted the town of Arsal in east Lebanon, where many residents back the Syrian rebels’ uprising.
A high-ranking Lebanese Army official said four missiles had been fired, apparently aiming for Syrian rebels positions inside Lebanon.
Top U.S. official Victoria Nuland confirmed the strikes, denouncing them as “unacceptable.”
“This constitutes a significant escalation in the violations of Lebanese sovereignty that the Syrian regime has been guilty of. These kinds of violations of sovereignty are absolutely unacceptable,” she said.
The Syrian conflict has killed an estimated 70,000 people and forced millions to flee from their homes, according to the United Nations.
As violence pitting rebels against the army raged across Syria, the selection of a rebel premier further reduced chances of talks with the Assad regime, which Syrian National Coalition leader al-Khatib had proposed in January.
Pro-Assad daily Al-Watan was quick to slam the Syrian National Coalition’s bid to form a government, branding it “delirious and confused.”
Free Syrian Army chief Selim Idriss has said the rebels will support and “work under the umbrella of this government,” reducing concerns that the insurgents could from the outset be opposed to an interim civilian authority.
Idriss also repeated calls to the West to arm the insurgents, adding he could guarantee that “these weapons will not fall into the wrong hands.”
European Union leaders are due to meet this week to discuss easing an EU arms embargo, amid statements from Paris and London that it is time to start arming the Syrian opposition.
The United States said Monday it would not block European moves to arm Syrian rebels battling Assad.
“President (Barack) Obama has made it clear that the United States does not stand in the way of other countries that have made a decision to provide arms, whether it’s France or Britain or others,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.