The Prime Minister of Syria has fled with his family to Jordan and joined rebel forces just two months after taking office. The flight of Riad Hijab early Monday morning marks the most senior defection yet in the 17-month-old uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
While his departure alone is not likely to push President al-Assad over the edge, it is a psychological blow at the regime and calls into question the loyalty of the civil service and the competence of the security services.
“I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution,” said Mr. Hijab, 46, in a statement read in his name by spokesman Muhammad el-Etri.
“Syria,” Mr. Hijab said, “is passing through the most difficult war crimes, genocide and barbaric killings and massacres against unarmed citizens.”
Such a senior defection is “a major psychological blow” to the regime, said Mohamed Chatah, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington and current foreign policy adviser to Saad Hariri’s March 14 movement.
“This is a significant defection,” said a former senior official in the Assad regime, and while “the prime minister in Syria these days doesn’t carry too much clout … Hijab was a senior member of the [ruling] Baath Party.”
His defection “could cause considerable unrest in the civil service.”
“Watch to see how it plays out there,” the former official said. “If civil servants were to act en masse it could make Bashar very vulnerable.”
The defection underscores a serious loss in the capabilities of Syria’s feared Mukhabarat (security service). It was reported that dozens of family members left Syria along with Mr. Hijab. Smuggling such a large number of people out of the country takes a lot of time and effort to execute, time during which an efficient security service should have uncovered the plan.
And, in Mr. Hijab, the opposition may finally have found someone they can put up as a credible alternative, said the former regime official. The ex-prime minister represents the northeastern province of Deir Ezzore, a pivotal battleground in the conflict.
Mr. el-Etri said Mr. Hijab’s defection was planned even before he took the prime minister’s position June 6, and it was carried out in conjunction with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Aides in Jordan say Mr. Hijab is expected to proceed quickly to Qatar, one of the main protagonists in the battle against the Assad regime. While Saudi Arabia reportedly funded General Manaf Tlas’s recent defection, Qatar has now apparently underwritten Mr. Hijab’s exodus.
The embattled Syrian President is likely to use the defection of yet another prominent Sunni Muslim as further evidence that Syria’s minority Alawite population, the sect to which Mr. al-Assad and his most powerful henchmen belong, can trust no one but fellow Alawites. It is this sectarian call to arms that likely is the strongest glue now holding the regime together.
“If Bashar does that,” said the former regime official, “he’s limiting further still his base of support.” Alawites make up only about 10 per cent of the population in Syria.
“This defection shows that the regime is disintegrating. It is the beginning of the end,” said Abdel Basset Sayda, leader of the Syrian National Council, a largely expatriate Syrian opposition group.
While agreeing the regime is coming undone, Mr. Chatah, the Lebanese former ambassador, said he doesn’t believe the Hijab defection, in and of itself, is a “game-changer.”
“The regime has shown how it can absorb shocks like the July 18 assassinations,” he said, referring to the bombing of security headquarters in Damascus in which four senior security officials, including the minister of defence and Mr. al-Assad’s brother-in-law, were killed.
Mr. Hijab, a former agriculture minister, was appointed prime minister following a widely boycotted parliamentary election. The vote was hailed as an example of reform by the Assad regime, but was dismissed as a farce by Arab and Western governments.
Omar Ghaliwanji, Syria's deputy prime minister, has been chosen to lead a caretaker government, state media reported.
In Aleppo Monday, the Syrian military continued its bombardment of rebel-held neighbourhoods as a force of some 20,000 was poised for a ground assault.
A senior security official said Sunday the army had completed its deployment of reinforcements to Aleppo, and was ready for a decisive showdown.
“All the reinforcements have arrived and they are surrounding the city,” the official said. “The army is ready to launch its offensive, but is awaiting orders.”
And in Damascus, an FSA spokesman said that three of the 48 Iranians it has been holding have been killed in shelling by government forces.
The 48 were abducted in broad daylight Saturday in a brazen operation not far from Damascus’s international airport.
The FSA says that many of those taken prisoner are members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Tehran insists the people are all pilgrims and were on their way home when taken.