ISTANBUL — Pushing aside international skepticism, the Syrian opposition gathered in Istanbul, Turkey, on March 18 to take the first steps toward setting up a government to rival that of President Bashar al-Assad's regime. In a meeting that stretched into the early hours of March 19, they finally settled on an interim prime minister: Ghassan Hitto, a 50-year-old technology executive who built his career in Dallas, Texas.
Hitto's task is nothing less than the formation of an interim government that can establish itself on the ground in northern Syria, administer local services, and provide a viable alternative to Assad's rule. He has his work cut out for him: Not only is the opposition starting from scratch in building government institutions, his selection provoked a mutiny among certain members, who see him as the handpicked choice of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which they fear is trying to dominate the opposition.
At least 12 members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which aims to be an umbrella group for the anti-Assad forces, announced they had suspended their membership following Hitto's selection. One of those figures is Suheir Atassi, a vice president of the coalition and a leading secular activist: "I won't be a woman who they think decorates their conferences and their meetings while they decide and argue about fateful things," she wrote in a Facebook post.
Another member who resigned, Walid al-Bunni, told Foreign Policy that Hitto was installed at the direction of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. "That one being chosen as prime minister was chosen without anyone knowing about him," he said. "I think this is some kind of humiliation for Syria."
It's true that Hitto, an ethnic Kurd who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, had not previously been one of the opposition coalition's more visible members. His LinkedIn profile identifies him as a employee of the mobile communication firm Integrated Telecom Solutions, and after the 9/11 attacks he advocated on behalf of Muslim-Americans with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The coalition's media team had identified him to journalists in the days before the election as the likely victor, due to his effectiveness in providing humanitarian aid inside Syria. Hitto became directly involved in the uprising in November, when he was appointed deputy head of the coalition's humanitarian relief unit.
In his first speech after being selected, Hitto promised to return all Syrian refugees "to the freed provinces," and install an interim government to handle local administrative issues there.
Even if Hitto can win the support of the dissident coalition members, he still has a daunting task before him. The interim government aims to provide humanitarian aid, medical assistance, electricity, water, communications, courts, and education in the rebel-held areas. Whether it can do so depends on its ability to establish a foothold within Syria, and gain major international backing for its efforts. While pledges of financial support have been made by a number of countries, little has been received, according to coalition members.
Hitto could see his support within the coalition fade quickly if he cannot show progress in developing functional institutions. Coalition members already want to hear about his specific goals: "He should come back to us with his time frame and his action plan," said Hisham Marwah, a member of the coalition's legal committee. "Otherwise we should nominate someone else."
Hitto's next step is to choose a cabinet and create the basic infrastructure of government. According to a timeline sketched out in several of the coalition's working papers, he must appoint ministers and form a temporary government within about two weeks, Marwah said. Members of the coalition have contemplated the creation of seven to 11 ministries, including a Defense Ministry, an Interior Ministry, and a ministry devoted to the management of energy resources.
Hitto will also "communicate with the revolutionary powers to see if they are ready to support the government," said Samir Nachar, a coalition member, describing how Hitto will have to move quickly to connect with local committees, rebel fighters, and activists inside Syria. "He will be given a month to measure the support."
It's unclear, however, whether Assad's grip over northern Syria has loosened to the extent that an interim government can operate effectively. Despite assurances from coalition members that the north is "liberated," the regime still carries out frequent airstrikes, and fires shells and missiles into rebel territory. On March 19, the Assad regime and the rebels each blamed each other for launching a chemical weapons attack in Khan al-Asal, a village near the northern city of Aleppo.
Hitto not only has to worry about Assad's army, he must consider the reception his interim government will receive from radical Islamist rebels. The northern province of Raqqa, which became the first to be largely liberated from the regime, is largely in the hands of Salafist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham -- they may not give up their newfound authority easily.
"[Extremists] are being pragmatic now...because everyone has the same goals," said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I expect after the regime falls -- whenever that happens -- that there will then be an intra-rebel civil war."
If it hopes to win over the naysayers, the new government is going to have to bring some significant resources to the table. Marwah estimated that a government would need $200 million in monthly support for humanitarian aid alone, in addition to "weekly tons of arms to make balance and protect ourselves...from Scuds and aircraft." The weapons will be provided via the yet-to-be-created Defense Ministry to the rebel Supreme Military Council, which has pledged fealty to the opposition government.
The interim government will only be officially formed after Hitto presents the coalition with an action plan and appoints ministers. It does not yet have its own offices or set budget, according to coalition members.
"It really needs some substantial commitments from the international community led by the United States in terms of financial resources, technical advice and assistance on the ground, and for that matter self-defense," said Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center and former State Department special representative on Syria.
Multiple members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition said Washington had advised them to slow down its creation. Such a government, U.S. officials feared, could be an obstacle to a negotiated settlement: Assad is unlikely to negotiate with a transitional government, as that could be seen as implicit recognition of an alternative authority within Syria.
Hof said the establishment of the interim government will require international players opposed to Assad to change course. "[I]n order for the U.S. and others to really get behind this and encourage this, a basic change in strategy is required," he said. "This kind of thing is never easy. You've got to get presidents and prime minsters to sign up for that."
Yet, even as the opposition coalition works to build financial and military support, it also has its eyes set on shorter-term diplomatic goals. In Hitto's speech, he said that the interim government would seek to secure Syria's seat at the Arab League, which has been vacant since the membership of Assad's government was suspended in November 2011. He also said that it would look to assume control over Syria's seat at the United Nations. According to coalition member Najib Ghadbian, such a step would likely be achieved through forcing a vote in the U.N. General Assembly.
Such political recognition, coalition members hope, could serve as building blocks in the effort to forge a financially viable and militarily protected interim government in Syria.
But the projection of confidence is critical, and all coalition members interviewed expressed a willingness to return to Syria despite the dangers. But what, I asked Marwah, could officials in the interim government do if faced with an incoming ballistic missile attack? In that case, he said, all they could hope for is "just to escape."