- - Monday, August 6, 2012

IDLIB, SyriaSyria’s prime minister Monday became the latest and highest-ranking official to defect to the opposition, a sign that divisions within the country are hardening further along sectarian lines.

Riad Hijab is a prominent member of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, which forms the foundation of the opposition in the 17-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad and his loyalists of the minority Alawite sect.

Mr. Hijab said he fled to Jordan, despite reports from Syrian state TV that Mr. Assad had fired him.

His defection is more evidence that Mr. Assad’s regime is crumbling, said a senior U.S. official traveling in Africa with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is due to discuss Syria with Turkish officials Saturday.

Middle East analyst Fawaz Gerges said the defections of Mr. Hijab and other top officials show that the Syrian institutions are collapsing.

“The fear is that the more the layers get stripped from the Syria state, you end up a core group determined by ethnic and tribal loyalty. It’s very alarming because this is consistent with anecdotal evidence of Syria being plunged into sectarian strife,” said Mr. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

Mr. Hijab said he had been planning his departure from the regime for months and was in Jordan with his family.

“I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime, and I announced that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution,” he said in a statement read by his spokesman on Al-Jazeera television.

The rebel Free Syrian Army said two other Cabinet ministers and three military officials defected with Mr. Hijab.

Mr. Hijab had been a loyal member of Syria’s ruling Baath party. He served as agriculture minister before Mr. Assad named him prime minister in June.

Defections from the Syrian regime have become more common as the conflict enters its 18th month, with daily reports of generals and officers leaving the army to fight with the opposition.

Just hours before Mr. Hijab announced his defection, a bomb ripped through the third floor of the state TV building in Damascus, showing again that the rebels could strike at the capital.

Last month, rebels detonated a bomb that killed Mr. Assad’s defense minister and his brother-in-law in a top-level meeting at the state security headquarters in Damascus.

The regime has become increasingly wary of sending its soldiers to fight because entire military units have gone over to the rebels, analysts said.

In Idlib province in northwestern Syria, members of a former army battalion now fighting with the rebels said they defected as a unit after they were deceived into thinking they were being deployed to the Israeli-occupied Syrian territory of the Golan Heights.

“Our orders were to retake the towns and cities by any force necessary,” said a former soldier who identified himself only as Fadi out of fear of retaliation against his family, still living in government-controlled areas of Syria.

“We took sniper positions on rooftops and were ordered to start shooting people,” he said. “We soon realized that we were not in Israel but in Syria and that the women were not Jewish but were wearing the hijab and speaking Arabic.”

The majority in the Syrian army are drafted for two years’ service.

About 70 percent of conscripts are from the Sunni majority, although 90 percent of the officers are from the ruling Alawite sect and other minorities, Mr. Gerges said.

“The regime is relying on less and less of its forces because it doesn’t trust the majority, and that’s why the bulk of soldiers are not being thrown into the theater of operations. There is a fear that they are unreliable or they are not confident of their loyalty to the Assad regime,” he said.

“The soldiers are not being mobilized, but they might have to be eventually. They might have to take their chances because the rebels are really exhausting the Assad forces, and that’s their strategy — to overextend the Assad forces.”

Nadim Shehadi, an analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said, “Some of the soldiers have been killed by the regime itself because they refuse to obey orders or [regime loyalists] heard they were going to defect.”

⦁ Osborne contributed from Berlin to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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