The most senior defector from the Syrian government has revealed the darkest assessment so far of the regime’s prospects for survival, saying that Damascus controls less than a third of the country.
Riad Hijab raised questions about the stability of the Syrian regime by abandoning his job as prime minister and slipping out of the country last week. Rebels claimed a victory with their successful operation to smuggle the politician and his family across the border into Jordan.
Now, in his first public statement since his defection, Mr. Hijab has emerged as one of the most prominent voices calling attention to the slow erosion of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“The regime is collapsing, morally, materially and economically,” he told reporters at a five-star hotel in Amman on Tuesday. “Militarily it is crumbling as it no longer occupies more than 30 per cent of Syrian territory.”
The real picture, however, might not be as easy to quantify. While the regime has gradually lost ground to rebels in recent months, and one of its fighter jets exploded in a fireball on Monday, analysts say the former prime minister may have overstated the weakness of the ruling elite, which still holds key urban enclaves and most of the strategic coastline. The analysts also question how Mr. Hijab would have significant insight into the inner circle around President al-Assad, having served only two months in a symbolic civilian job. And the fact that he was swiftly rewarded by the U.S. government, which unfroze his bank accounts on Tuesday, will also hurt his credibility.
In any conflict, measuring how much territory is controlled by opposing forces is not a surefire way of determining progress because not all areas are equally valuable. A large part of the Syrian territory consists of sparsely populated desert, which has seen little reported violence during the 17 months of conflict. Parts of the mountainous north have also remained calm, but not because they are held by either the government or rebels – Kurdish militias patrol those areas.
The first detailed assessment of rebel zones in Syria was published this summer by the Institute for the Study of War, a research group based in Washington, D.C., which found the rebels held sway in a series of rural strongholds.
Elizabeth O’Bagy, an Arabic-speaking analyst who worked on that report, returned last week from travelling in the region with the impression that the rebels are advancing beyond those rural areas and seizing urban neighbourhoods – but that the balance of military power still rests with the government.
“The cities are now coming under significant pressure from the rebels,” Ms. O’Bagy said. “The regime probably holds more than 30 per cent of the country, for the moment, but the momentum has shifted in favour of the opposition.”
Retreat can be a useful tactic, in some circumstances, Ms. O’Bagy added: The fact that swathes of countryside have fallen into rebel hands may have been the result of regime efforts to defend key areas. The Assad regime retains its hold in parts of the capital and the major financial hub of Aleppo. The government also controls most of the coastal region, which includes a Russian military base and serves as the heartland of the Alawite minority that has staunchly backed the regime.
Few signs have emerged that the Alawites who surround the Assad family will abandon the cause. Most of the senior defectors, including Mr. Hijab, belong to the Sunni Muslim majority that has been the backbone of the uprising.
The financial reward for quitting the regime have prompted some cynicism about Mr. Hijab’s departure. Hours after his press conference, the U.S. government announced that his bank accounts would be freed up. Sanctions have targeted individual figures in the Syrian government and U.S. officials declared Mr. Hijab’s case a successful example of the usefulness of that policy.
“The United States encourages other officials within the Syrian government, in both the political and military ranks, to take similarly courageous steps,” said David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department.
Prominent defectors played a major role in the Libyan revolution, but the long-suffering Syrian rebels may prove less welcoming of latecomers to their cause. Mr. Hijab spoke in passionate terms about why his fellow Syrians should join the uprising, and rebels released video suggesting they assisted his escape from the country, but it remains unclear what role he might play in the revolution.
“Syria is full of honourable officials and military leaders who are waiting for the chance to join the revolution,” Mr. Hijab said.
Volunteers continue to join the ranks of pro-government forces, as well. On Tuesday, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta accused Iran of organizing informal militias in Syria. Mr. Panetta told a press conference that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are “trying to develop, trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime.”
The United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday that it has registered almost 160,000 Syrians who fled into neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, and noted that the numbers do not include many still waiting to register.