Syria’s opposition National Coalition has elected Ghassan Hitto, a communications executive who has been resident in the United States for decades, as prime minister for rebel-held areas of Syria.
Hitto won a vote held in Istanbul by the group, getting 35 out of a possible 48 votes, Coalition member Hisham Marwa told reporters early on Tuesday.
The vote came after about 14 hours of closed-door consultations among 63 coalition members, with some describing Hitto as a consensus candidate pleasing the opposition’s Islamist and liberal factions.
Other Coalition members, however, withdrew from the consultations before the vote could take place, reflecting divisions within the opposition.
When the voting finally took place, members placed their ballots in a transparent box in the conference hall where the much-awaited meeting took place.
“This is a transparent, democratic vote,” said Coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib.
Hitto arrived in the conference hall minutes after the count, and was met with a round of applause as he shook hands with Coalition members.
“I give great thanks to the heroes and revolutionaries of the Syrian people. We are with you,” said Hitto, who recently moved from Texas to Turkey to help coordinate aid to rebel-held areas.
When asked what the first priority of his interim government would be, he said: “We’ll talk about that tomorrow.”
The provisional prime minister is expected to appoint a cabinet over the next two to four weeks, Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith reported from Istanbul.
“One of the most significant appointments he’ll have to make will be that of defence minister,” Smith said, citing the challenge that the minister will face in unifying the armed opposition under the umbrella of the provisional government.
Coalition members hope the new government will unite the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and provide services to Syrians living in rebel-held areas, many of whom have been battered by the country’s civil war and suffer acute shortages of food, electricity and medical services.
The provisional leadership faces huge challenges, starting with its ability to gain recognition from rebel factions on the ground.
As rebels have progressed in northern and eastern Syria, a patchwork of rebel groups and local councils have sought to fill the gap left by the government’s withdrawal by organising security patrols, reopening bakeries and running courts and prisons. It is unclear if these groups, many of which have taken charge of their own towns, will accept an outside authority.
Hitto’s election follows two failed attempts to form a provisional government due to the opposition infighting.