The American face of Syria's revolution: Ghassan Hitto voted interim PM
Ghassan Hitto (C), celebrates late on Monday in Istanbul with Syria's main opposition National Council chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib (R) after the council elected him as prime minister for swathes of Syrian rebel-held territory. (Photo: AFP/OZAN KOSE)
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Syria's main opposition group elected a naturalised US citizen early on Tuesday as the first prime minister of its planned interim government, hoping to establish administrative authority in areas of northern Syria that have been secured by insurgents fighting President Bashar Al Assad.
After a prolonged day of manoeuvring and voting on Monday that lasted into the early-morning hours, representatives of the opposition coalition, meeting in Istanbul, chose Ghassan Hitto, 50, a former information technology executive, who emigrated from Syria many years ago and until recently had lived in Texas.
Hitto was heavily involved in volunteer efforts to help Syrians whose lives had been upended by the uprising against Al Assad.
In voting televised live by Al Jazeera, Hitto won 35 votes, three more than his closest competitor, Al Asaad Mustafa, a former Syrian agriculture minister.
Hitto is married to Suzanne Hitto, an American schoolteacher, and they have four children, who were all born in the United States. His eldest son, Obaida, has been working in Syria for the opposition and was injured there in a bombing, according to the opposition's press office. "A lot of the sons of this country had to leave for various reasons," Hitto said in a prerecorded video that was posted on. "But Syrian people must carry their homeland in their heart wherever they go."
He is expected to select other ministers in coming days for a government that is not yet physically in place in northern Syria. It was unclear whether all the rebel fighters united in their desire to oust Al Assad would recognize the interim government as a legitimate authority.
The announcement that Hitto had won came hours after Syrian warplanes attacked targets inside eastern Lebanon, the first time since the Syria conflict began that the military had used its air force to strike at suspected rebel hideouts across the Lebanon border.
The aerial assault was the third serious border episode tied to the Syria conflict in the past two weeks and underscored the threat to the country's neighbours.
The concept of a rival government run by the opposition inside Syrian territory has faced a mixed reaction in the United States, which has long demanded that Al Assad resign and that an independent transitional government acceptable to all sides replace him, as agreed to in a major conference on Syria in Geneva nine months ago.
"That's the road forward," Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Monday in Washington. "But you have to have a President who is willing to appoint that independent entity. And as of this moment, he is not."
While the United States is not yet willing to provide weapons to the insurgency, as France and Britain have said they are prepared to do, Kerry reiterated the Obama administration's position that "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."
Earlier on Monday, Lebanon's National News Agency said in a brief dispatch that "warplanes affiliated with the Syrian Air Force" had attacked the Wadi Al Khayl Valley area, near the Lebanese border town of Arsal, without specifying whether they had caused casualties or damage.
The mountainous area is known for its porous border. It is considered a haven for Syrian insurgents, and the civilian population there largely opposes Al Assad. Syrian forces have occasionally fired across the Lebanon border in clashes with anti-Al Assad fighters, but had never before used warplanes to attack suspected rebel positions inside Lebanese territory.
There was no immediate explanation for the attack from the Syrian government. But it had warned on Thursday that its forces might fire into Lebanon because of what it called repeated incursions by terrorist gangs, the standard official Syrian terminology for the armed opposition to Al Assad.
Lebanon's government, mindful of the long history of entanglements with its neighbour, has sought to remain neutral over the conflict in Syria. But sectarian tensions have been stoked by the conflict nonetheless.
What will a US Prime Minister mean to the revolution? Does Hitto's appointment actually mean anything? Share your comments with us below!