Syria’s new interim premier met his Cabinet after Prime Minister Riad Hijab disappeared in what rebels said was his defection to the opposition.
Omar Ghalawanji, the acting premier, met ministers yesterday, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi indirectly confirmed Hijab’s departure, saying that anyone who fled the country and illegitimately abandoned a government post showed a lack of political and national awareness, the state-run news agency reported.
“We haven’t heard anything from the former Prime Minister and he didn’t appear on TV or said anything,” al-Zoubi told the agency. Al-Zoubi also rejected reports that other ministers had left Syria and said they all attended the Cabinet session.
Hijab’s defection marked the highest-ranking departure since the uprising against Assad began last year and was the most serious blow to the Syrian authorities since last month, when a bomb attack in Damascus killed key members of the military establishment, including Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.
President Bashar al-Assad met the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, in Damascus, today Iran’s state-run Mehr news agency said.
“Enemies” are targeting Syria and “we shouldn’t allow them to make up for losing on the resistance front by taking it out on the Syrian people,” Jalili said, according to Mehr.
Assad, whose country is Iran’s closest Arab ally, said the intervention of foreigners who back “terrorism” in Syria by sending arms to the rebels is unacceptable, the agency said.
Government troops clashed with rebels in Damascus’ Rukn Eddine neighborhood, Aleppo, Homs, Daraa and other areas, inflicting heavy losses, Sana reported.
At least 100 people died across Syria today, including 26 in Damascus and its suburbs and 23 in Aleppo, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mail.
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. The Associated Press reported that a Jordanian official, whose name it withheld, confirmed that Hijab defected with his family. Syria says Hijab was dismissed.
“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.
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 the prime minister’s post in a June government shakeup with which Assad sought to thwart growing opposition by promising changes in government.
Syria has “sufficient human resources to cover the posts of all those who flee,” Sana quoted al-Zoubi as saying.
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.
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 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, probably 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 United Nations estimates, while the opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the death toll at more than 21,000.