ISTANBUL: Syria’s opposition will not enter into dialogue with the regime of President Bashar Assad, the country’s newly elected rebel prime minister said Tuesday in his inaugural speech.
“We confirm to the great Syrian people that there will be no dialogue with the Assad regime,” Ghassan Hitto said.
Hitto was chosen early Tuesday by a majority of the main opposition National Coalition members, after hours of closed-door consultations.
The 50-year-old will be tasked with setting up an interim government which would be based in rebel-held territory in Syria.
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, in which he won 35 out of 50 votes, 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.
However, the U.S. Tuesday welcomed Hitto’s election, voicing hopes he can foster “unity and cohesion among the opposition.”
U.S. officials “know and respect” Hitto from his work with the Syrian coalition on humanitarian efforts in Syria, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, although she refused to confirm he was an American citizen.
Key Assad ally Russia said Tuesday that it deeply regretted the election, fearing that his appointment would heighten instability in the war-torn country.
“In Moscow we learned of this step by the National Coalition with deep regret,” the Foreign Ministry said in a comment published on its website and attributed to its official spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
Hitto’s election “can only deepen the state of internal instability in Syria. It increases the possibility of the country’s falling apart, leaving by the wayside not only those who support the acting legal government but also those opposition structures that are not part of the Coalition,” the ministry said.
In Syria, pro-Assad daily Al-Watan branded the coalition’s bid to form a government “delirious and confused.”
A long-time Texas resident, Hitto served in the communications sector in the U.S. 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 unraveled, 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.
In a speech laying out the new government’s priorities, Hitto Tuesday called the regime “a gang” that “destroyed the country.”
“The main priority we have before us is to make use of all tools at our disposal to bring down the Assad regime,” Hitto said, while pledging to offer “all possible assistance” to residents living in areas free from army control.
“The aim of this government will not be based on political interests. We will choose its ministers and advisers based on their technical and professional capacity,” he added.
The opposition aims to help run daily life in large swathes of rebel territory mired in poverty and insecurity.
Louay Safi, a coalition member, said Hitto was expected to form a government that includes Defense and Foreign ministers as well as a main focus on service portfolios.
“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,” Safi said.
Hitto said his interim government, which opponents believe should be formed within a month, will “collaborate with the Free Syrian Army” to ensure “security and the rule of law” for civilians.
He said the government would “fight crime” and “limit the proliferation of weapons” in areas from which the army has withdrawn, but which are plagued with insecurity, kidnappings and theft.
Free Syrian Army chief of staff Selim Idriss has already said that the insurgents would work under the umbrella of the provisional government.