Damascus: Syria's main opposition National Coalition early Tuesday elected Ghassan Hitto, a former US-based IT executive with Islamist leanings, as prime minister for Syrian rebel-held territory. In a new challenge to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the Coalition appointed Hitto after some 14 hours of closed-door consultations in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
Hitto arrived in the conference hall minutes after he won 35 out of 49 votes from the Coalition, and was met with a round of applause as he shook hands with Coalition members. "We say to you (the Syrian people) that we are with you, and that, God willing, we are victorious" over Assad's regime, Hitto told reporters later, as he praised the "great" Syrian people.
"We will announce this government's programme soon," added the country's first rebel premier, voted in more than two years after the outbreak of an anti-Assad revolt that has turned into a civil war. Coalition members say the prime minister's first task will be to form an interim government, which he should put to a vote to the Coalition's general assembly.
Hitto plans to be based inside rebel-held parts of Syria, from where he and his future government will help administer swathes of territory that are mired in poverty and insecurity. "He will have about a month to form a government," a Coalition member told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Opposition members in Istanbul hoped the vote would attract much-needed weapons and humanitarian aid from the international community. Some Coalition members described Hitto as a consensus candidate pleasing both the opposition's Islamist and liberal factions.
But some of the 70-odd Coalition members withdrew from the consultations before the vote could take place, accusing opposition heavyweight Muslim Brotherhood of imposing Hitto as a candidate.
"We don't want what happened in Egypt to happen in Syria. They hijacked the revolution," Coalition member Kamal Labwani, who walked out of the vote, told AFP.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Faruk Tayfur rejected the accusation, however.
He said "we supported Hitto insofar as he was a candidate of the Syrian National Council," a key faction of the Coalition in which the Brotherhood plays a prominent role. Reflecting the opposition's divisions, the Coalition only went forward with the vote when the candidacies of two other key contenders -- Osama al-Kadi and Salem al-Moslet -- were dropped.
When the voting finally happened, the remaining Coalition members placed their ballots in a transparent box located at the front of a conference hall in an Istanbul hotel, where the much-awaited meeting took place. Hitto's resume touts 25 years of experience with high-tech and telecommunications companies, including 16 years in executive management roles. He has lived in the US state of Texas.
Last November he abruptly quit his job "to join the ranks of the Syrian revolution." Up until recently, Hitto headed the National Coalition's humanitarian assistance arm -- the Turkey-based Assistance Coordination Unit, where he did "a stellar job", according to Coalition spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.
Supporters have praised his knack for building diplomatic ties that have been key to secure much-needed financial support for Syrians displaced by the conflict. Hours after the vote, some 50 Turkish protesters opposed to the revolt in neighbouring Syria held a demonstration outside the Retaj hotel, where the vote took place. They accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Barack Obama of being behind the killing in Syria.
The Syrian conflict has killed some 70,000 people and forced millions to flee from their homes, according to the United Nations. As violence pitting rebels against the army raged across Syria, the selection of a rebel premier further reduced chances of talks with the Assad regime, which Coalition leader Khatib had proposed in January.
Pro-Assad daily Al-Watan was quick to slam the Coalition's bid to form a government, branding it "delirious and confused". Free Syrian Army chief Selim Idriss has said the rebels will support and "work under the umbrella of this government." Idriss also repeated calls to the West to arm the insurgents, adding he could guarantee that "these weapons will not fall into the wrong hands".
European Union leaders are due to meet this week to discuss easing an EU arms embargo, amid statements from Paris and London that it is time to start arming the Syrian opposition. US Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the United States would not block European moves to arm Syrian rebels battling Assad.