Syria’s Prime Minister Riad Hijab has defected and joined rebel forces in the highest-ranking departure since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began last year, opposition leaders said.
Hijab left the country with three other cabinet ministers, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, commander of the Free Syrian Army, said in interview from the Turkish-Syrian border yesterday. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said officials haven’t heard from Hijab, who was dismissed from office. Zoubi also rejected reports that ministers defected and the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said that all ministers attended a Cabinet meeting. The Associated Press reported that a Jordanian official, whose name it withheld, confirmed that Hijab defected with his family.
“That the titular head of the Syrian government has rejected the ongoing slaughter being carried out at Assad’s direction only reinforces that the Assad regime is crumbling from within,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday.
Hihab’s departure would mark the most serious blow to President Bashar al-Assad’s government since last month, when a bomb attack in Damascus killed key members of the military establishment, including Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.
Hijab, who was a member of the ruling Baath party, comes from Syria’s majority Sunni community whose members make up much of the armed opposition, while Assad is a representative of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Formerly agriculture minister, Hijab was elevated to prime minister in a June government shakeup with which Assad sought to thwart growing opposition by promising government reforms.
At least 199 people were killed in fighting yesterday, including 49 in Aleppo, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mail.
The Sana news agency said government troops clashed with rebels in Damascus’ Rukn Eddine neighborhood, Aleppo, Homs, Daraa and other areas, inflicting heavy losses.
Syrian Finance Minister Mohammad al-Jleilati said he is committed to remaining in the government after Al Arabiya reported he had been detained while preparing to leave.
“What’s been said is baseless and aims to harm Syria,” al-Jleilati said in a telephone interview from Damascus. “I’m now heading into a meeting of the council of ministers.”
Omar Ghalawanji, deputy prime minister for services affairs and minister of local administration, was appointed interim prime minister, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency. It gave no reason for Hijab’s loss of office.
The former premier has joined the opposition, said Mohammed el-Etri, described on Al Jazeera as Hijab’s spokesman. The defection had been planned for months in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army and also involved the departure from the country of 10 families of Hijab’s relatives, el-Etri told the channel.
“The facade of the Syrian regime is crashing, the facade the regime has used to give the world the impression that it is a political and not a military regime,” Burhan Ghalioun, a senior member of the Syrian National Congress and its former leader, said in a phone interview from Paris. The news leaves Syrian government “naked for the whole world to see it for what it really is,” he added.
Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, a Sunni Muslim and childhood friend of Assad, was previously the most prominent defector from the president’s political circle. Formerly a commander in the elite Republican Guard, Tlas is the son of ex-Defense Minister Mustapha Tlas. Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, joined the opposition in July.
“The defections are spreading to other sectors of the government now, including the military, diplomats and politicians,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview.
The U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other nations are trying to help broker the creation of a broad transitional council to prevent a bloody sectarian conflict from erupting after Assad, according to two U.S. officials involved in Syrian policy.
The concern is that some members of the opposition, joined by ordinary Syrians, would seek revenge against Assad’s Sunni, Christian, and Alawite supporters, forcing them to flee or fight. Such a dead-end conflict, both officials said, likely would create more room for Islamic extremists to enter, and also threaten to destabilize Jordan, Lebanon, and perhaps Iraq.
More than 10,000 people have died during the conflict, according to UN estimates, while the opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the death toll at more than 21,000.