Is a leader from Texas a good fit for the Syrian opposition?
International donors will like Ghassan Hitto, the newly elected leader of the Syrian opposition, because of decades spent in the US, but that undermines his credibility among Syrians.
Antakya, Turkey — A former information technology executive who spent decades living in the US has taken the helm of the Syrian opposition. Although Syrians may be skeptical of Ghassan Hitto because of his long absence from the country, his potential to bring in international aid appears to be what is winning him support for now.
Mr. Hitto is originally from Damascus and has lived in the US since the early 1980s, most recently in Texas. Delegates representing the Syrian opposition coalition elected him as the group’s new interim prime minister yesterday morning in Turkey.
Now he must unite a fragmented opposition, garner international support, and win the trust of Syrians traditionally skeptical of opposition leaders who arise from the Syrian diaspora. Despite the enormity of these tasks, some Syrians hold out hope that Hitto may be able to use his position to overcome these challenges and bring much needed aid into the beleaguered nation.
Hitto has been heavily involved in efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and support for Syria. In November, he quit his job and moved to Turkey, where he began working full time to support opposition relief efforts.
“I think that maybe he will be good for the country. He’s helped people in Syria with food, medicine, and money,” says Yassin Sabak, a Syrian who defected from the Syrian Army and now lives in Turkey, who adds that he is also impressed by Hitto’s son Obaida who has traveled inside Syria to help rebels.
Having spent decades of his adult life overseas, Hitto faces a difficult road as he works to win the support of many Syrians who remain adamant that they will not be ruled by Syrians from abroad. Most Syrians say they prefer whoever leads them be someone who has stayed inside the country and taken an active role in the revolution.
Still, Hitto may be given some leeway, given that many political dissidents were forced to flee the country during the 40-year rule of the Assad family.
“It’s normal someone like Hitto to come from outside because anyone thinking about these things had to go out of the country before the revolution,” says Amir Qasr, a Syrian journalist now living in Turkey.
The opposition’s ability to deliver services and assistance to those inside the country will be a key measure of the interim government’s success and ability to gain legitimacy inside Syria.
Western donors remain reluctant to provide military supplies and backing to the opposition and the need for humanitarian aid has far outpaced international donor contributions. But Hitto’s experience in the US, particularly his time as a business executive, may reassure international donors.
“The positive side is that this guy is an executive who has experience trying to deliver goods into Syria. The opposition, at this point, is a song and a prayer. To a certain degree they just need to do something, anything,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “Syria is desperately poor. It needs everything. Whoever comes into town with some money and a little bit of skill, may be able to get something started.”
In a speech after his election in Istanbul, Hitto said that the new interim government will work to bring an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. He added that the opposition will not negotiate with Assad’s government.
Hitto immigrated to the US while still a teenager. He earned degrees at Purdue University in computer science and mathematics. All four of Hitto’s four children were born in the US and Hitto himself is a naturalized American citizen.
Prior to moving to Turkey, he lived with his family in Murphy, Texas, near Dallas. He lived in the Lone Star state long enough to become a football fan and is said to follow the Dallas Cowboys. While living in the US, Hitto was involved in a number of local Islamic charity organizations and is perceived by most as a liberal Islamist.
Among other organizations, he served multiple terms as a board member at the Brighter Horizons Academy, an Islamic school in Texas. Three of his children graduated from there and his wife, Suzanne, teaches English there.
In a statement on the academy’s website following Hitto’s appointment as Syria’s new opposition prime minister, the academy described him as a “practical man with great management experience” who was “always open-minded and open to debate.”
American officials have welcomed Hitto’s new appointment, saying he became “well and favorably” known to US officials while coordinating the opposition’s aid efforts in from Turkey.
“[W]e know him well from the work that he’s been doing since he returned to the region,” said Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the US State Department. “I would simply say that this is an individual who, out of concern for the Syrian people, left a very successful life in Texas to go and work on humanitarian relief for the people of his home country.”