He is a “straight shooter” from Texas who worked as a telecoms executive until November. But Ghassan Hitto now finds himself the presumptive caretaker-leader of Syria as world powers plot the end of Bashar Assad’s crumbling regime.
The American citizen, born in Syria, is the new prime minister of the opposition’s interim government – the apparatus that the international community hopes will seal the end of Assad’s rule.
Friends describe Hitto, 50, as “sincere” and “practical,” but the charismatic technocrat will need all the charm he can muster to unify Syria’s fragmented opposition.
His rapid rise has prompted questions about how the deadly conflict should end and has cast a light on infighting, fueled by regional countries purportedly supporting certain opposition figures.
The Free Syrian Army, one of the key rebel groups fighting Assad’s forces on the ground inside Syria, responded to Hitto’s appointment in Istanbul on March 18 by refusing to recognize his authority.
“The situation there is so dire, I’m afraid for him,” said Mustafa Carroll, who worked alongside Hitto in Texas as a volunteer at Muslim advocacy groups. “It’s a big responsibility and it’s very complicated.”
“He’s a straight shooter, very sincere, very well-regarded and a very active community person,” said Carroll, who is director of the Houston chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations.
Seen as Muslim Brotherhood's pick
Hitto, a father of four, lived in the U.S. for three decades, most recently on the outskirts of Dallas working as director of operations for telecoms supplier Inovar, where co-worker Arshad Syed remembers him as "honest" and "personable."
He left Syria in the early 1980s and received an MBA at Indiana Wesleyan University on top of a degree in computer science and mathematics from Purdue University in Indianapolis.
Strongly active in community groups, he was a member of the board of directors at the private Islamic school Bright Horizons Academy, in Garland, Texas, where his wife Suzanne still teaches English.
In November, he made the decision to get involved in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces -- the international grouping that seeks to end Syria’s civil war on the condition that Assad is removed from power.
“Like a lot of people living away, he just wanted to help his homeland,” said Carroll.
Hitto’s wife did not return calls, but the academy issued a statement describing him as “a practical man with great management experience.”
It said: “He was always open minded and open to debate. He conducted himself with the highest honesty and integrity. His talent for bringing people together for the common good will be missed in our community.”
Hitto, a respected technocrat but an inexperienced politician, won the overwhelming number of votes from those who cast a ballot -- other possible candidates that included a former Syrian regime official -- but some members of the Coalition boycotted the vote in protest at the process.
Not everyone was convinced the opposition needed an interim government, seeing it as yet another organization that could compete for control of a post-Assad Syria.
Official spokesman Walid al-Bunni walked out of the vote in protest and Moaz al-Khatib, president of the Coalition, resigned and had to be persuaded back on board just in time for the Arab Summit in Doha, which began Tuesday.
“Hitto’s whole role has been undermined from the start,” said Christopher Phillips, associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at U.K. think tank, Chatham House.
“He’s very much the Muslim Brotherhood’s man, and is seen as such. There was a lot of pressure to get an interim opposition leader in place ahead of the Doha talks, but the way in which it was done, and the choice of very much the man that Qatar and Turkey wanted, has infuriated and alienated just about every key player in the process.”
Represents 'the some of the some'
Salman Shaik, director of the Brookings Center in Doha, said many Syrians "still regard the appointment of Hitto with suspicion." Even if Assad is toppled from power, Hitto is by no means certain of the authority he needs to implement free and fair elections.
“The huge elephant in the room is that there is no guarantee that, if and when the Assad regime falls, that any of the groups fighting in Syria will gather around this official opposition,” said Phillips. “There are huge uncertainties in all of this.”
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, commentator and general manager of the Al Arabiya news channel, wrote: “I am confident that Mr. Hitto is a respectable person and that he cares about Syria. But during this difficult time, we want a person who represents everyone and not only some Syrians. Some members of the Syrian coalition decided to choose Hitto but the coalition itself only represents some Syrians. Therefore, Hitto represents the some of the some!”
Yasser Tabarra, the Chicago-based legal adviser to the Coalition, says the interim government will focus on managing the 60 to 70 percent of the country that is liberated and controlled by opposition rebels.
The government would coordinate local management efforts, including establishing law and order, and delivering basic goods and services, Tabarra said.
Two key stumbling blocks remain: whether the Coalition should enter into any form of negotiations with the regime while Assad is still in power, and whether Hitto, an ethnic Kurd viewed as the Muslim Brotherhood's favored candidate, can unite the ideological differences between its liberal and Islamist members.
In his task, Hitto at least has the backing of the U.S.
“This is an individual who, out of concern for the Syrian people, left a very successful life in Texas to go and work on humanitarian relief for the people of his home country,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland after Hitto’s election.
“We’re very hopeful that his election will foster unity and cohesion among the opposition.”
NBC News' Becky Bratu contributed to this report.