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GlobalPost interview: US policy in Syria is flawed, says ex-rebel premier

Following his resignation as prime minister of the Syrian National Council, Ghassan Hitto talks to GlobalPost about arms, US policy and his country's future.

Ghassan Hitto 2 2013 07 12Enlarge
Syria's main opposition National Coalition newly-elected Prime Minister Ghassan Hitto speaks on March 19, 2013at a Syrian opposition meeting in Istanbul. Hitto resigned this week. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The first prime minister for the Syrian opposition in exile, Ghassan Hitto, resigned this week after failing to form an interim government or establish a presence on Syrian soil.

The Syrian National Coalition, a consortium of groups opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, appointed Hitto as prime minister in March.

Hitto, a dual Syrian-American citizen, says the coalition prevented him from working on the ground inside Syria. The SNC is plagued by infighting and accusations of irrelevance, as its members bicker in foreign capitals while an armed rebel movement fights the Syrian government inside the country. 

On Thursday, Al-Qaeda linked extremists killed a member of the Free Syria Army's Supreme Military Council. Nearly 100,000 people have been killed in the two-year-old conflict.

Hitto himself worked and lived in Dallas, Texas for most of his adult life, after receiving his MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University. 

This week, Hitto sat down with GlobalPost in Istanbul following his resignation at a Syrian opposition conference in Turkey’s largest city. He discussed US support for the rebels, extremists within the opposition’s ranks, and the future of the Syria. 

Below are edited excerpts of the interview.

What is your opinion on US policy toward Syria since the conflict began? 

I think it has been flawed. I think the US government needs to make up its mind on how to figure out how to end the rule of Bashar [al-Assad]. The Syrian people have made up their minds that there will be no future Syria with Bashar al-Assad in it. I’m not aware of any weapons that have come from the US and [have been transferred] to the rebels. It should [happen]. Everyone knows that unless we support the rebels, we’re not going to be able to do anything in the future in terms of a political settlement. Don't get me wrong, we are grateful for [US] support. But the funding we have received is not enough.

Do you support a no-fly zone or arming rebels, or both?

I support a no-fly zone and arming rebels, including with surface-to-air missiles. And I support surgical strikes [on Syrian military targets]. These are the things I asked of Senator John McCain when I met him. I’ve asked the same of [US Secretary of State] John Kerry. These three options don’t require boots on the ground, and should not be politically harmful to anyone. Unfortunately, none of this is happening and the result is making the situation worse. Nobody is talking about Iran and what it is doing [inside Syria].

Should the US be concerned that weapons from Gulf countries will fall into the hands of jihadists?

It should be concerned. But that concern should not be translated into an excuse not to arm the [opposition] Syrian Military Council under the leadership of Salim Idris. There are 101 different ways to track these weapons, to make sure they don’t fall into the wrong hands. 

Why did you quit [your post as prime minister] now? 

I didn’t quit. There was a political tug-of-war internally inside the coalition. There was talk about certain regional players saying that if Ghassan Hitto is prime minister, they would not [be involved]. So I removed myself from this position to ensure aid continues to flow into Syria. 

Is the Syrian opposition and its interim government still relevant today? Ask people in Idlib province or Homs and they will say it is not. 

I asked them myself. I went there and visited them. Today, what is the alternative? I’ll tell what the alternative is: chaos.

But there is already chaos on the ground in Syria. 

There has been chaos, and it continues. The doubt [about the opposition government] is not coming from inside Syria. The doubt is coming from either members of the coalition or regional countries. 

Do we need a government to organize drinking water? Yes. Do we need a government to organize food? Absolutely. Do we need a government to organize health and care for the injured? Absolutely. Who is going to try to work with the [rebel] groups controlling the oil fields? This requires a government.

Do you intend to go back to Dallas now you have resigned?

I’m staying here in the region. I’ll continue to work to support the Syrian people, and if the coalition needs my assistance, I’ll be happy to help.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/130711/syria-national-coalition-ghassan-hitto-us-kerry-bashar-assad-iran