Leader of Syria's opposition - from North Texas - described as a pragmatist

Posted Monday, Mar. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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He could be your North Texas neighbor.

Ghassan Hitto, a 50-year-old IT executive who lived just east of Plano and worked for a Dallas firm, surprised co-workers and world leaders alike on March 18 when the Syrian opposition government announced it had elected the naturalized Syrian-born American citizen as its interim prime minister.

Living in the U.S. for 30 years, Hitto seemingly sprang from obscurity to become one of the key players in the bloody, fitful struggle to remove Syria's authoritarian president, Bashar Assad.

And people who know him have expressed concern.

"He's got a big target on his back right now," said Arshad Syed, Hitto's boss back in Dallas, "I am very concerned about his safety. The government of Syria is very ruthless, these guys are very ruthless."

Aside from the evident danger of working to destroy of one of the world's most murderous regimes, Hitto finds himself enmeshed in the rough-and-tumble of Syrian opposition politics, immediately at odds with the coalition exile government's president and with the rebel army, whose top brass haven't totally accepted Hitto's authority.

Although some secular rebels consider him aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, others dislike Hitto -- technically a non-Arab as a member of Syria's Kurdish minority -- for his MBA-style pragmatism and American links. (The Damascus-born Hitto holds a math and science degree from what is now Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in 1989 and an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.)

"The extremists are not happy because he is a technocrat," said Feras Alhlou, a board member of the Syrian American Council, with which Hitto had been part of. "The minute he was announced as prime minister, some crazy people said he was a CIA agent just because he has a U.S. passport."

The opposition's secular president, Moaz al-Khatib, offered his resignation this weekend and initial reports cited differences with Hitto. But in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV, al-Khatib did not mention Hitto as a factor in his decision.

It is known that al-Khatib favored a transitional government that would include elements of the Assad regime while Hitto's first remarks as prime minister ruled out any participation by the current regime in Damascus.

Hitto was included in a list of 12 candidates, and received 35 votes out of the 48 cast during last week's meeting of the opposition Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul. Another 15 were not present to vote or had walked out in protest.

Parallels have been made between Hitto and Ahmed Chalabi, the now discredited Iraqi-American who helped convince the Bush administration of the presence of weapons of mass destruction, then returned to his Middle Eastern homeland to become a vocal and wily sectarian Shia politician after the Iraq war.

But people who know Hitto in Texas say he is cut from a different cloth, less personally ambitious and more willing to build coalitions rather than engage in political shenanigans.

A father of four, Hitto was the director of operations for Syed's Telecom Solutions, also known as Inovar, which creates software for mobile phone companies. Every day Hitto commuted from his two-story, 3,520-square-foot home in the Collin County suburb of Murphy, which he shared with his American-born wife Suzanne, a fourth grade teacher at a Muslim parochial school in Garland.

On Dec. 1, the mustached and bespectacled executive took a leave of absence, telling Syed that he was headed for Turkey for a few months to help with Syrian relief efforts. His oldest son, Obaida, had gone last fall as a self-described rebel media activist, sending back blogs, photos and video. An insurgent Facebook page recently described the former University of Texas-Dallas student as a sniper.

Like others, Syed said he was stunned when he heard during a business trip to Egypt last week that Ghassan Hitto had received a top post in the insurgent hierarchy.

This week, Hitto looked like a politician with a common touch, venturing into the rebel-held town of Aleppo, greeting people on the street and sitting on the grass with local leaders, according to videos posted online.While little known on the world stage, Hitto had made a reputation as an active member for the Muslim community in North Texas, taking public stands against ethnic profiling and perceived prejudice against the religious minority by federal authorities and others after 9-11.

"Ghassan has always been courageous but not the front guy," said Mohamed Elibiary, a Dallas-based security advisor who has known Hitto for more than a decade. Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

Twitter: @bshlachter

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