Monday, August 06, 2012

As Civil War Rages On, Syrian Foreign Minister Defects to Jordan

This is potentially a significant turning point in the ongoing Syrian civil war. The Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab has defected to Jordan, although Bashar al-Assad's media outlets claim he was fired:
President Bashar al-Assad fired his prime minister on Monday, Syria’s official media reported, as activists countered that he had defected with several officials and military commanders in what seemed a further indication of disarray among government loyalists following a series of high-level defections and a rebel bomb attack last month that killed four of the Syrian leader’s closest security aides.

Amid a rush of jubilation, opposition figures said Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab had defected to neighboring Jordan along with at least two ministers and three military officers — 10 families in all, opposition leaders said. Al Jazeera television carried what it said was a statement from a spokesman for Mr. Hijab saying he had “joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution.”

Mr. Hijab appeared to be the highest ranking civilian official to defect since the conflict started 17 months ago. The announcement of his dismissal by Syria’s official media came hours after a bomb explosion was reported at the main state television building in Damascus, the capital, while fighting raged in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and other parts of the country.

“We welcome the defection,” said Mohammed Sarmini, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, based in Turkey. “It’s not the only one and there will be more. This is proof that the regime is collapsing.
There have been a series of defections by various diplomats and several generals, but this is the highest ranking official to have done so. There have been mixed reports about whether Hijab was in Jordan or not, but it would appear that he's definitely out of the government. The question would be whether it was of his own accord or he was pushed out.

Either way, it would seem to indicate that Assad's loyalists are beginning to doubt that Assad's regime and his grip on power will continue. It could be a sign that the defectors are hoping for a spot in whatever government emerges to take Assad's place down the line, or at least survive without fear of sectarian retribution from Assad's opposition. It would also indicate that Assad's support is thinning and that he could face a coup should his higher ranking military officials band together to preserve their own positions by sacrificing Assad. After all, that's how the current situation in Egypt developed (street protests and unending violence led to Hosni Mubarak being sacked by the military that turned on him).

The fighting continues around the country, including in Damascus, where a bomb blast hit the state run television station.

At the same time, a group of Iranian "pilgrims" were captured by rebel forces. Iran has sought their release, but the rebel group claims that Iranian military officers were among those captured.
Syrian rebels said a group of people captured near Damascus included members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to a video broadcast by Al Arabiya, as fighting raged outside the capital and in Aleppo.

The claim contradicted Iranian descriptions of the abducted people as pilgrims. Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi urged Turkey and Qatar, which have backed the Syrian opposition, to help release the captives, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. IRNA said 48 pilgrims were abducted.

Shiite Muslim-led Iran has been the closest regional ally of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which is dominated by officials from the Alawite sect, affiliated with Shiite Islam. Turkey and Qatar are largely Sunni Muslim states, and the rebels are largely drawn from the Sunni majority.
This isn't the first time that Iranian pilgrims have been captured, and it certainly isn't the first time that the rebels have claimed that Iranian military officials were among those captured. It certainly is plausible that the rebels are on the mark with their claims, but there's no way to independently verify the claims.

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