The first prime minister of the Syrian opposition, Hitto is a former IT executive who spent much of his life in Texas. He quit his job and joined the Syrian opposition full-time in November. He was elected to his current position in March, after months of contentious efforts by Coalition parties. Critics have long questioned whether Hitto was “out of touch” with Syria after spending much of his life in the United States, and whether he would have the political muscle to unite a fragmented, often-fractious opposition.
This interview was conducted the evening before Ahmad Assi Al-Jarba was elected as the new Coalition President and two days before Hitto, 50, announced that he would resign from the Coalition.
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Syria Deeply: What progress has the interim government made since your election in March?
Ghassan Hitto: The interim government, from my perspective, is now ready to start working once it’s ratified by the Syrian opposition coalition. That requires them to meet and allow time to discuss the government and hopefully approve the cabinet. Since I was elected on March 19 and just before the end of April, the cabinet was formed, and since then I have been working through details about priorities for us to work on to serve the Syrian people. I have been ready, and I’m ready now to present the government, and I think it’s of utmost importance that the coalition takes time to discuss this government and approve it so we can get on with business and serve the Syrian people. This is what the Syrian people are looking for from us.
I think we’ve talked enough and I think we’ve planned enough – I don’t even know how many plans we have. I think it’s time to start working. Today the Syrian people are looking for food security, health security, border control, and our national wealth is being smuggled out of the country because our borders are out of control. We have lost the wheat harvest and we have to save the other harvest that is coming up. We have the oil wealth that we need to organize quickly to benefit from. I see Syria being dependent on international aid for a long time, although we’re used to being independent and being self-sufficient. This state of being completely dependent on aid, while greatly appreciated, is something strange for us, and we need to get out of this state very quickly. We can, but in order to do these things we need to get on the ground and do business.
SD: How have the plans been received by coalition members?
GH: My conversations with coalition members as well as people inside Syria have been very well received. Is there any other plan to serve the Syrian people today? If there is, I’ll be the first to advocate such plans. If they are better than the ones that we have then we should go with those plans. In the absence of other plans it’s a crime not to move forward. It’s a crime to accept this situation of stalemate that’s not taking us anywhere.
We need to move forward, and I think we have a reasonable plan that will allow us to start so we can navigate these unchartered areas. This is something new to all Syrians. We haven’t rebuilt Syria before, so this is something that we have to figure out. We’ve never been in a situation where 10 million people are affected by this crisis. We have to solve it a few thousand at a time, and quickly. With a lot of work, a lot of seriousness and a lot of sincerity I think we’ll get there, but not doing anything is problematic for me and totally unacceptable.
SD: The coalition has expanded in a bid to be more representative of the Syrian people. How will your cabinet reflect this?
GH: Let me answer this in two sections: firstly regarding the coalition and secondly the government.
The coalition, prior to its recent expansion, had a reasonable amount of representation of the Syrian people. Particularly it had people from the Alawite sect, Kurds, Christians, Assyrians, Turkmanis and representations from various cities and local governments. The recent expansion of the coalition took the membership from 60 to 114 and added another dimension with different schools of thought and different ideologies.
I would say that today the coalition truly represents 99.9 percent of Syrians. I think you would be hard pressed not to find a group of people currently not represented in the coalition. There is a joke going around that even the Assad regime is represented. On the government side, I think it’s too early to pass judgment. After I present the cabinet, you will see Syria truly represented. You will see a woman, a Christian, a Kurd, a Turkmani, conservatives, liberals — you will see Syria.
This wasn’t my intention as I followed a completely technocratic process. I asked for applications, and Syria responded with 1,070 resumes, and from those I selected my cabinet. I stayed away from providing cabinet positions to certain political group representatives within the coalition. I’m being criticized for not doing that, but this is what I promised the coalition and the Syrian people that I would do at the beginning — that I will not use this type of allocation within the cabinet. I focused on abilities, specialties and capabilities, and I came up with a good cabinet that I believe will serve the Syrian people. It’s too early for me to reveal the members of the cabinet now, as that will be presented to the coalition when they allow and make the time for it.
SD: When do you expect that to be?
GH: Tonight it is late, so hopefully tomorrow, and if not I will remain focused on the job that was given to me. I will continue to work on plans. Frankly I think delaying this decision is a crime. It’s a crime against the Syrian people. The Syrian people don’t care if the internal bylaws of the coalition have changed or been modified.
That does not bring drinking water. I have reports from Idlib that a family could not buy drinking water because a bottle cost 30 Syrian pounds — that’s less than half a dollar. We’re dealing with these kinds of problems, and here we are discussing modifying our bylaws and trying to elect a president. All this is good, I’m not saying we don’t need it, but maybe we have our priorities confused. This is the concern I have as a person who was elected by this coalition, to form this government to serve the Syrian people. I have been ready to serve and I think we need to get on with this business. I am concerned.
SD: Is the coalition the biggest roadblock to action?
GH: Absolutely. I will not play with words nor dance around the issue. The only entity that can push the button and tell this government, “Go start working,” is the coalition. I could be bad and just declare a government, but that would be irresponsible and does not serve the Syrian people well. I need the legitimacy from the coalition, and it is important that this government is supported by the international community. It is on the shoulders of the coalition to approve this government and let us get down to business. It is completely unacceptable, and Syrians should not accept this status or situation of inaction. It should also not be accepted by the international community. I realize that the international community is extremely frustrated by the state of this organization. Relief organizations all have a mind of their own and focus on different sectors, and they like to work by themselves.
We need a government to organize relief work — not to interfere, but to know what is being delivered and what is missing. We need to make sure everybody has drinking water, and that the Euphrates dam is not about to fall apart and cause a disaster that could cost 4 million lives, according to the highest estimates — the lowest is 2 million if a scud missile hits the dam and it floods. We need to feed our soldiers. They are hungry and they need to continue this fight. Short of no other solution, we need ammunition and food for our soldiers.
We need to make sure we can start to organize our schools in the areas that are liberated so we can allow children to go back to school. Idle hands are the work of the devil, and we don’t want these teenagers to get into drugs, theft or join these other military groups. The list goes on and on, and we cannot assume that we can’t do anything. No one will offer us the solution, we have to create it ourselves. I believe that when we do that, we will get a much more positive reaction from the international community. We need to help ourselves to allow others to help us.
SD: Aside from removing Assad, what are your biggest concerns?
GH: When we talk about the interim government, the biggest issue is the coalition. In the broader sense, it is obviously Assad. The solution is the departure of Assad and his regime. We are not against the country or its institutions, but we are definitely against Assad and his gang. We reject the suggestion that we should work in partnership with them. Do you reward a criminal? Why is it acceptable to ask the opposition and the Syrian people to join hands with Assad? We want a Syria without Assad that is free, democratic, pluralistic and united. Assad and his father before him have committed so many crimes, and we kept our mouths shut. Now the Syrian people have spoken, and we have passed the point of no return. There are ways to solve this politically, but one of them is not a partnership with the Assad regime.
Iran is also part of the problem. Hezbollah has 60,000 soldiers in Syria as well as there being thousands of Iranian soldiers inside the country with Russian ships arriving at Syrian ports on a daily basis. Why is nobody asking Iran to leave Syria? Why is nobody asking the Lebanese government to ask the Hezbollah forces to leave Syria? We will not allow people to occupy Syria. We will continue to fight until Syria is free. Iran needs to pull its forces out of Syria and stop its invasion, and the same for Hezbollah.
SD: Do you anticipate this to change with the election of Rouhani?
GH: We are very reasonable people, and they need to show a sign of good faith, and that’s how negotiations start. They are the aggressors and we’re not. Iran should encourage Assad to cease fire and stop killing the Syrian people. We won’t give them a menu of things that we will consider. They are a state who see themselves as playing a major role in the region, and they need to conduct themselves responsibly.
SD: The coalition is also due to discuss their position on Geneva 2. What is your expectation for an international solution?
GH: I’m not against going to Geneva 2, but we’re a long way from that. All crises get resolved around the table, and the solution has to be reasonable. However, we are not the aggressors. The Syrian people spoke up and the response was bullets. We have the right to defend ourselves. There is a lot of precedence that the international community can conduct business outside of the UN Security Council, so maybe it is time to do that and we’ll see.