Interim leader elected as Syrian opposition figures blast Kerry call for negotiations with regime

By Nuha Shabaan

March 19, 2013

The Syrian opposition conference on Wednesday elected a Syrian-American of Kurdish descent to lead a transitional government to rule liberated areas of the embattled country.

Ghassan Hitto, 50, an IT executive from Texas, faces the daunting task of establishing authority over pockets of areas around the country, particularly Idlib province, now in the hands of the Free Syrian army and affiliated groups.

Hitto’s position on Syria’s 4 million Kurds was not immediately clear, but he has categorically rejected negotiations that include Syrian regime officials, a point of agreement with the Kurdish PYK (the Democratic Union Party).

“We see any contact with the regime as useful to the regime and not to us,” said Abdulbasit Hamo, a spokesman for the PYK who is based in Germany. Negotiating with the government “will divide the opposition into many parts and create a schism between the Syrian street and the opposition,” Hamo added.

The PYK supports a federalist Syria, a controversial proposal that has not gained widespread support among the opposition. The party believes it will cut off the path for another dictator to control us all,” said Hamo.

American flip-flopping on the regime

Syrian opposition figures, meanwhile, were deeply critical of what they perceive as a reversal of the American position as articulated in recent months by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While Clinton talked tough about Assad’s crimes and the need for the regime to fall, the first Obama administration steadfastly refused to arm the Syrian rebels. Despite the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry has opened the way to arming the opposition, political players interviewed for this report universally condemned Kerry’s call to negotiate with the regime.

“Kerry’s demands are the opposite of what [former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton called for,” said independent politician and blogger Jawad Aswad. “We consider everyone who demands negotiations with Bashar al-Assad as a person with false intentions,” said Aswad, adding that the Americans “made the coalition the legal face for the opposition, and then let it down.”

“They are trying to change the rules of the game,” said Samir al-Homsi, 58, a political independent currently living in Saudi Arabia. “Now they are looking for someone suitable within the Syrian government to participate in the negotiations.”

The Syrian government applauded the American shift toward negotiations with the regime, with Syrian Reconciliation Minister Ali Haydar telling BBC Arabic on Wednesday that "the American position has begun to adapt to reality."

Haydar repeated regime demands that dialogue be unconditional, adding that it is the only solution. "All parties have come to the conclusion that no one is capable of a unilateral win."

At least one political observer feels the changes in American policy are negatively impacting progress in bringing down the Assad regime.

“The American effect on the revolution is more dangerous than that of the Russians,” said Samir Satuf, a member of the National Coalition from Homs and now living in Algeria. “America has adopted its position depending on Israel’s point of view,” said Satuf, reflecting a widely held belief in Syria and the greater Arab world.

“This conference is just one of the stations the at which the train of the revolution is stopping, said coalition member Satuf. “It might speed up or delay getting us to our destination, but it certainly will not make us go backward.”