ISTANBUL: Syrian opposition leaders chose Western-educated technocrat Ghassan Hitto as provisional prime minister in what they hope will be the first step to fill a power vacuum arising from a two-year-long revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Hours after the appointment of Hitto, who has lived for decades in the West and is little known in Syria, Syria's government and rebels accused each other of a deadly chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo.
If confirmed, it would be the first use of such arms in the conflict, in a region that the opposition is hoping to use as a launchpad to delivering services in large swathes across the country no longer controlled by President Bashar al-Assad.
At a meeting of the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday, Hitto received 35 votes of around 50 cast by coalition members.
With backing from the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition coalition Secretary General Mustafa Sabbagh, who has strong links with the Gulf and has emerged as a kingmaker, Hitto was assured of winning the vote, according to meeting sources.
But, given Islamist domination in the coalition, the West has been lukewarm about forming an opposition government; instead, the main outside push for the idea has come from Qatar, according to diplomats and sources in the opposition.
"Our main goal is to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime by all means and while providing the basic services to our people on the inside," Hitto told coalition members in remarks after he was named.
The 50-year-old said the government would operate "in liberated areas" and make restoring law and order a priority, as well as reactivating schools and government departments.
Large tracts of Syria have fallen to rebels in the last few weeks but remain subject to devastating artillery and aerial bombardment by government forces as well as ballistic missile attacks. So Hitto faces a tough task in establishing a replacement for crumbled central government authority.
Assad is using his government's continued ability to deliver some services, such as fuel and the Internet, to placate several regions through which supply lines run to his forces, according to opposition sources.
Syrian authorities said on Tuesday rebels had fired a chemical weapon at the northern village of Khan al-Assal near Aleppo, killing 26 people. The opposition said it does not possess such weapons and accused Assad of targeting the area as a warning for the north not to host the provisional government.
"By hitting Khan al-Assal, Bashar al-Assad is sending a message that he will not hesitate to use every means to kill his people if the opposition organises and receives more international support," said Louay Meqdad, political commander for the rebel Free Syrian Army Command.
At least 70,000 people have been killed since a peaceful protest movement led by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority broke out two years ago against four decades of family rule by Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and his father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
The demonstrations were met by bullets, eventually sparking a Sunni backlash and a mostly Islamist armed insurgency increasingly spearheaded by the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
The predominant Islamist element in the uprising has created a political dilemma for regional and Western powers and deepened the Shi'ite-Sunni divide in the Middle East.
Hitto has U.S. citizenship and served in the communications sector in the United States before working on securing humanitarian assistance for the uprising.
He will have to obtain funding of at least $500 million a month for an alternative administration to deliver services, reopen schools and pay public employees in regions where central authority had unravelled, a coalition official said.
"We now have a chance. At least a competent person has been chosen and he can start. If we had delayed naming a premier any longer it would have been too late," the official said.
Several senior coalition members, including tribal leader Ahmad Jarba, liberal professor Burhan Ghalioun, and veteran opposition campaigners Walid al-Bunni and Kamal al-Labwani, withdrew from the session before the vote to protest what they described as a hasty Qatari-backed push to choose Hitto.
But his supporters argued that their man was a qualified manager untainted by the coalition's internal feuding.
"A near consensus emerged on Hitto. He is a practical man with management experience and is open to debate. He promised to consult widely before naming ministers and only appoint those with a long experience," said Mohammad Qaddah, the coalition's representative from Deraa, cradle of the two-year uprising.
The Western- and Gulf-backed coalition was formed last year as an umbrella group of the opposition, but it has little control over the hundreds of rebel brigades fighting Assad.
It remains unclear what type of relationship Hitto will have with coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, a moderate cleric from Damascus who has been playing the role of statesman and who has been lukewarm about forming a government.
The coalition stayed in session after Hitto was chosen to try to agree on the relationship between the body and the government Hitto is charged of forming.
Louay Safi, another coalition member, said Hitto was expected to form a government that includes defence and foreign ministers as well as a main focus on service portfolios.
"Basically this government is going to provide services to liberated areas," Safi said. "Hitto has the technical abilities that you expect from the technocrat but he also has a sense of politics and is a very good negotiator. He would be a good representative to the international community."