The new Syrian opposition prime minister Ghassan al-Hitto “is more Texan than Muslim Brotherhood,” Washington’s envoy to Syria Robert Ford told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday.
Dismissing concerns at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ford insisted that Hitto, narrowly elected this week by the Syrian National Coalition as interim premier, was “not a religious extremist -- far from it.”
“I’ve met him twice... and he struck me as more Texan than Muslim Brotherhood, frankly,” Ford said of Hitto, a former IT executive who has lived in the southwestern U.S. state of Texas for decades.
“I don’t know what his political affiliations are. But I do know that he also has a tolerant vision of Syrian society,” Ford stressed.
“He has, at some self-sacrifice, gone over to help with the humanitarian crisis in Syria. He did not have to do that.”
Hitto is expected to name a technocratic government that plans to operate inside Syria, attempting to bring rule of law and basic services to large swathes of rebel-held territory.
His election has exposed rifts in the fractured Syrian opposition, with at least 12 key members saying Wednesday they had suspended their membership.
“The Coalition is a non-elected body, and as such it does not have a right to choose a prime minister on a majority vote. There should have been consensus,” dissenting member Kamal Labwani told AFP in Istanbul.
Hitto was elected Tuesday by 35 of approximately 50 Coalition members present in Istanbul, after some 14 hours of consultation. Some members who opposed his election walked out before the vote.
The United States has been working hard behind the scenes to help mold the Syrian opposition into a viable alternative to President Bashar al-Assad, as the battle to oust the long-time leader enters a third year.
Assad “has not yet decided that his days are numbered and that he’s going to have to leave,” Ford told the House committee.
“But I think he also must understand -- as his windows rattle because the fighting is getting closer -- he must be thinking about whether or not his calculations are correct.”
Ford also stressed that Hitto’s appointment was seen as an interim step before a transitional government is established, and it was not yet clear if the new prime minister would have a role in that.
“We view this as a short-term step to help provide services, to help provide humanitarian assistance into areas of Syria liberated from regime control, and that’s how he defines his role.”