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Up Front

Syria’s First Interim Prime Minister

Salman Shaikh

After weeks of hot debate within Syrian opposition circles, the Syrian Opposition Coalition has managed to appoint a new interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto. Much of the commentary has focused on his expatriate background as an information technology executive who had lived in the United States for more than 30 years. Reports of the Coalition’s meeting in Istanbul also point to a fraught voting process with a dozen or so of the more liberal-leaning members walking out in disgust.

Whatever the backstory, Hitto and his transitional government will now face the daunting task of meeting the expectations of a desperate population living inside the so-called “liberated” or regime-free areas of northern and eastern Syria. The UN has estimated that up to 3 million people are displaced inside the country and that up to 4 million need humanitarian aid. Both are likely to be very conservative figures given the ferocity of the conflict and inability of the UN and other international agencies to get aid to rebel-held areas.

To date, the Coalition has struggled to build the infrastructure required to deliver such aid efficiently and consistently. If it manages to do so, and to establish a real presence on the ground, it may just have a chance of establishing real credibility as an opposition force inside the country. This, however, would be no mean feat given the intensity of the regime’s aerial attacks and the fragmented nature of control exerted by various military groups and civilian local councils. Much will also depend on the international support that has been promised to the new government from regional and Western supporters, but which has been very slow to arrive. The U.S. decision, in particular, to support directly the political opposition and the fighting rebels may be a sign of things to come.

In his first address, Prime Minister Hitto has recognized the very difficult task that lies ahead for his administration. He has pledged to provide the services that so many Syrians are lacking. He has also promised to prepare the conditions for free and fair elections in a post-Assad regime Syria.

Many Syrians, though, will regard the appointment of Hitto with suspicion. Since the announcement, I have heard both Syrian nationalist figures and those from some minority communities – inside and outside the country – talk dismissively about the move. For them, Hitto is a pawn of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has undoubtedly gained a key role in the internationally-recognised SOC. They point to the instrumental part played by the Brotherhood leadership within the SOC in securing Hitto’s election, saying that he would reached the position without their backing. . There is a sense that Hitto’s appointment has allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, assisted by key regional actors, to walk in through the front door and assume control of Syria’s opposition movement. (One interlocutor remarked acidly “who would have thought that one hundred years later, a Syrian Prime Minister would be announced in Istanbul.”) For them the move signifies the complete revival of the Brotherhood, a movement which suffered terribly under the brutal assault of the Baathist regime in the 1980s.

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Such talk, even if exaggerated, should be worrying for the SOC and the Muslim Brotherhood. It shows that there is a very large number, particularly in the “grey area” of Syrians who have not declared their opposition to the Assad regime, have not accepted either the SOC or the Muslim Brotherhood. The appointment of Syria’s first interim Prime Minister should be a watershed moment for all Syrians. That it may not prove to be so, does not bode well for the impending post-Assad transitional period, which surely will start sooner or later.

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