The Accidental Syrian Prime Minister

by Ryan Lovelace
Ghassan Hitto was an Texas IT technician until he was elected head of the rebel government.

Ghassan Hitto came to the United States for the reason so many immigrants do: He left Syria in search of a better life, an education, and the American dream.

But 30 years after leaving his homeland behind, he returned to serve as first prime minister of the opposition government that’s rebelling against Syrian president Bashar Assad.  

As a 19-year-old student, he ended up in the Midwest, where he participated in an intensive English-language program. He met and married his wife, Suzanne, in Chicago before moving to Indianapolis, where the two would work together at a local bookstore.

As he and Suzanne began building a family, Hitto pursued a degree in mathematics and computer science from Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (“IUPUI”). After graduation, he found a job in the computer department of a family-owned hardware store known to locals as “the House of a Million Screws.” He would go on to receive his MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University and continue to climb the economic ladder as an information-technology specialist.

Hitto’s work ultimately led him to Dallas, where he helped develop the Shaam Relief Foundation to collect donations and aid for refugees of the Syrian war.

On one business trip overseas, Suzanne says, he received a phone call from a person who was part of the effort to set up the new Syrian government, who asked him to come and look at the group’s budget. Hitto reviewed the budget, thought the rebels underestimated the cost of humanitarian projects, and realized the rebels didn’t have the leadership necessary.   

The Syrian National Coalition, a political group that represents a number of rebel groups in Syria, recognized his all-around talents, Suzanne says, and approached him about running for prime minister.

“I’m an IT guy,” Hitto told them. “I don’t know anything about politics.”

Hitto felt an obligation to serve in Syria, but his thoughts remained with his family in the United States.

One day, Suzanne says, he called her at her school, Brighter Horizons Academy in Texas, where she worked as a 10th-grade English teacher. Communicating with Hitto had grown difficult, especially as he travelled inside Syria. The next words out of his mouth, Suzanne worried, could be something like, “I’ve found a Syrian wife that I prefer.”   

Instead, Hitto asked her to go fill out the paperwork to give herself power of attorney. His name had been put on the ballot, he said, and he could be elected prime minister — possibly putting his life in jeopardy within days. After she hung up the phone she consulted a family friend — a Syrian friend — explained the situation, and asked for guidance finding an attorney. Even Suzanne’s closest friends found the story hard to comprehend.

Candidate Hitto called back the following week — turn on the television, he said. Suzanne flipped to Al Jazeera, and watched as people patted her husband on the back and celebrated his election. It was surreal. People in Suzanne’s community did not know how to process the situation. Some were scared.

Hitto did have political experience: He’d served as president of the school’s board. Suzanne says Brighter Horizons ordered protection around the school, fearing possible threats. The school was bombarded with phone calls from across the world — Brazil, Italy — that it didn’t know how to handle.

“It was just like living in a twilight zone for about three weeks,” Suzanne says.

While Suzanne adjusted to life in the United States as wife of the leader of a faraway rebellion, Hitto began to create a new government for Syria. When the Syrian National Coalition elected Hitto as its first prime minister in March 2013, he became responsible for building a government to oppose Syrian president Bashar Assad’s regime.

When he started to create the government, Hitto says, his job had two main responsibilities: interviewing people for the positions of ministers and their deputies and  meet and getting to know the Syrian people.

As prime minister, Hitto also put a plan in place to manage the northern border Syria shares with Turkey. He developed a plan to reclaim oil wells from fighting groups inside Syria, and developed a strategy for managing wheat and other crops. Hitto’s government worked to provide a blueprint for managing local administration units and councils.

Hitto resigned his position in July 2013, with media reports citing the difficulty of forming an interim government, and was replaced that September. Since leaving office, he began working for the Syrian Business Forum, a group of Syrian businessmen and women focused on helping the Syrian people through humanitarian efforts.

“When I look back at it, I think it was fairly stressful but manageable,” Hitto says of his time in office. “And I thought for someone who had not been a prime minister before, for that short period of time I did okay.”

But there were controversies from the very beginning.

At the time of his election in 2013, the New York Times referred to Hitto as “a relative unknown in opposition politics.” The Times reported that some involved in the opposition politics described Hitto as “the choice of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.”

National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy has written about the Brotherhood’s involvement around the Arab world, and argues that it “is engaged in a far-flung enterprise aimed, in the Brothers’ own words, at ‘eliminating and destroying’ our way of life ‘from within” by means of “sabotage.’”  

Hitto was at one point a senior member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that was listed as one of the unindicted co-conspirators in the Holy Land Foundation trial.

Now out of the public eye, Hitto says the status of the Syrian revolution is “not very good.” The Assad regime survives, he says, because of the direct military support it receives from Iran and Hezbollah and materiel support from Russia.

Hitto says he was grateful for the assistance the SNC has gotten from United States taxpayers and for the work done to provide aid to the Syrian people by the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other countries.

But President Obama’s policies have disappointed Hitto.

“[President Obama’s] inaction is going to go in history that he saw a massacre happening in front of his own eyes and basically he chose not to do anything,” Hitto says. “And that’s not American. That’s something that I’m not sure how to describe except I’m disappointed.”

If the U.S. had provided the military assistance he asked for as prime minister —  targeted air strikes, proper weaponry including MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems) — things would be different today.

“I think President Obama put the United States in a difficult position,” Hitto says. “He made a commitment to help the Syrian people if President Assad used chemical weapons. President Assad used chemical weapons. And President Obama did nothing about it.”

The rebels would have had a shot at stopping the spread of al-Qaeda groups in Syria, Hitto suggests, if they had the necessary military assistance. He says there are many things the U.S. could do to help without sending troops: The rebels need to be better equipped, better trained, better prepared, and given access to better intelligence. 

“I personally continue to be disappointed by the inaction of the President Obama towards Syria,” Hitto says. “I’m not sure how many people should die, should be killed. How many women should be raped? How many prisoners should remain in prison? How many prisoners should continue to be tortured? How many children should die? And how many schools should be destroyed? And how many mosques should be destroyed? How many churches should be destroyed?”

For Ghassan Hitto, the fight against Assad is personal. Hitto’s son, Obaida, blogged about the Syrian conflict and spent a year living under constant bombardment in the city of Deir al-Zour and uploaded some videos to YouTube. His videos show the aftermath of the bombardment:

“On a personal level I just decided that I wasn’t going to sit around and watch all these young men go out and stand up for justice in the name of a tyrant dictator and just clap my hands and cheerlead for them from the sidelines,” Obaida says. “I wanted to get involved more in the on the ground efforts to bring the Syrian crisis to the forefront and to help people understand what’s really happening.”

Obaida now works for a nonprofit relief organization where he translates Arabic to English so the organization can provide project proposals to international NGOs. Suzanne was preparing to make the move to the Syria–Turkey border on June 1 to open a school for children who have escaped the conflict.

Hitto says he’ll continue to help the Syrian people in any way he thought he could.

“If that help and that involvement is more effective in the work that I’m doing right now, then I’m very content and happy with what I’m doing,” Hitto said. “If my help and my involvement is needed in helping organize a transitional government or what have you, I’ll put my talents and work and effort anyway as needed to help the Syrian people.”

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.