By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Syrian opposition leaders chose Western-educated technocrat Ghassan Hitto as 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.
Hours after the appointment of Hitto, who has lived for decades in the West and is little known in Syria, Syria's government and rebels accused each other of a deadly chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo.
If confirmed, it would be the first use of such arms in the conflict, in a region that the opposition is hoping to use as a launchpad to deliver services to large swathes of the country no longer controlled by President Bashar al-Assad.
At a meeting of the Syrian National Coalition in the Turkish city of Istanbul that stretched into the early hours of Tuesday, Hitto received 35 votes of around 50 cast by coalition members.
Hitto was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition coalition Secretary General Mustafa Sabbagh, who has strong links with Gulf Arab states and has emerged as a kingmaker, according to sources at the meeting.
But the domination of Islamists in the coalition, the West has been lukewarm about forming an opposition government; instead, the main outside push for the idea has come from Qatar, according to diplomats and sources in the opposition.
"Our main goal is to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime by all means and while providing the basic services to our people on the inside," Hitto told coalition members in remarks after he was named.
The 50-year-old said the government would operate "in liberated areas" and make restoring law and order a priority, as well as reactivating schools and government departments.
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 Assad.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose country is a major force in Western efforts to increase humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas, said Hitto's appointment would improve the chances of rebuilding areas not under Syrian government control.
But Russia, the major arms supplier to Assad's forces along with Iran, said the move was counterproductive.
"The decision taken in Istanbul may only aggravate internal instability in Syria. It adds to prospects of a breakup of the country," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Large tracts of Syria have fallen to rebels in the last few weeks but remain subject to devastating artillery and aerial bombardment by government forces as well as ballistic missile attacks. So Hitto faces a tough task in establishing a replacement for crumbled central government authority.
Assad is using his government's continued ability to deliver some services, such as fuel, to placate several regions through which supply lines run to his forces, opposition sources said.
Syrian authorities said on Tuesday that rebels had fired a chemical weapon at the northern village of Khan al-Assal near Aleppo, killing 26 people. The opposition said it does not possess such weapons and accused Assad of targeting the area as a warning for the north not to host the provisional government.
"By hitting Khan al-Assal, Bashar al-Assad is sending a message that he will not hesitate to use every means to kill his people if the opposition organizes and receives more international support," said Louay Meqdad, political commander for the rebel Free Syrian Army Command.
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, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and his father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
The demonstrations were met with bullets, sparking a Sunni backlash and a mostly Islamist armed insurgency increasingly spearheaded by the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
The predominant Islamist element in the uprising has created a political dilemma for regional and Western powers and deepened the Shi'ite-Sunni divide in the Middle East.
Hitto has U.S. citizenship and served in the communications sector in the United States before working on securing humanitarian assistance for the uprising.
He will have to obtain funding of at least $500 million a month for an alternative administration to deliver services, reopen schools and pay public employees in regions where central authority had unraveled, a coalition official said.
"We now have a chance. At least a competent person has been chosen and he can start. If we had delayed naming a premier any longer it would have been too late," the official said.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczinynska Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jon Hemming)