ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Syrian opposition leaders chose Western-educated technocrat Ghassan Hitto as a provisional prime minister in what they hope will be the first step to fill a power vacuum arising from a two-year-long revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
At a meeting of the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul that stretched well into the night, Hitto received 35 votes of around 50 cast by coalition members.
"I give great thanks to the heroes and revolutionaries of the Syrian people. We are with you," Hitto told coalition members in brief remarks after he was named.
With large swathes of Syria falling to the opposition in the last few weeks while still being subjected to devastating artillery and aerial bombardment, as well as ballistic missile attacks, Hitto faces a daunting task in setting up an administration to compensate for the collapse of the central government.
Assad is using his government's ability to still deliver some services, such as fuel and the Internet, to placate several regions that contain supply routes to his forces, according to opposition sources.
At least 70,000 people have been killed since a peaceful protest movement led by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority broke out two years ago against four decades of family rule by Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, and his father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
The demonstrations were met by bullets, eventually sparking a Sunni backlash and a mostly Islamist armed insurgency increasingly spearheaded by the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, creating a political dilemma for regional and Western powers and deepening the Shi'ite-Sunni divide in the Middle East.
Fifty-year old Hitto, who has U.S. citizenship and worked in the communications sector in the United States before working on securing humanitarian assistance for the uprising, is seen a centrist figure within the opposition.
He was elected with backing from the coalition's secretary general Mustafa Sabbagh, a businessman with strong connections in the Gulf who has emerged as a kingmaker, along with the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which heavily influences a large bloc in the coalition, according to coalition sources.
It remains unclear what type of relationship Hitto will have with coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, a moderate cleric from Damascus who has been playing the role of statesman and who has been lukewarm about forming a government.
Several senior coalition members, including tribal leader Ahmad Jarba 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 foreign-backed push to choose Hitto.
But Hitto's supporters argued that their man was a qualified manager untainted by the coalition's internal political struggles.
"A near consensus emerged on Hitto. He is a practical man with management experience and is open to debate. He promised to consult widely before naming ministers and only appoint those with a long experience," said Mohammad Qaddah, the coalition's representative from Deraa, cradle of the two-year uprising.
Louay Safi, another coalition member, said Hitto is expected to form a government that includes defence and foreign ministers as well as a main focus on service portfolios.
"Basically this government is going to provide services to liberated areas," Safi said. 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."
The Western- and Gulf-backed coalition was formed last year as an umbrella group of the opposition, but it has little control over the hundreds of rebel brigades fighting to depose four decades of Assad family rule.
Underpinning the difficulty of filling in the power vacuum, at least seven people in the northern city of Aleppo were killed in fighting on Sunday between gunmen employed by a self-appointed court run along Islamist lines and linked to Nusra and members of a rebel brigade, opposition activists in the city said.
The clashes occurred in the neighbourhood of Sakhour when the court gunmen tried to arrest members of the Shahba Shield brigade on suspicion of involvement in criminal activity, the sources said.
Selim Idris, head of opposition Supreme Military Council, said after briefing the coalition on the military situation, that Assad's firepower makes it impossible for the rebel Free Syrian Army to guarantee the safety of the new government if it operates from inside Syria, but he said the opposition had to take the risks.
"Our people in liberated areas are languishing under destroyed infrastructure, without water, power and sanitation," Idris said.
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Eric Walsh)