‘The regime is drowning’ say rebels as Syrian PM defects
SYRIA’S prime minister defected to the opposition yesterday, becoming the first cabinet minister to desert president Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Riad Hijab – who planned the break for months, according to an aide – is the highest-level political figure to switch sides and his move is certain to encourage the rebels, after a string of military and diplomatic figures abandoned the regime. A Jordanian official and a rebel spokesman said he fled to Jordan.
A senior American official said the defection was more evidence that the Assad regime is crumbling.
A series of significant setbacks over the past month suggest its grip on the country is loosening.
Four of the president’s top security aides were killed in a rebel bombing of state security headquarters in the capital Damascus on 18 July, including the defence minister and Mr Assad’s brother-in-law. There has also been a steady stream of high-level defections, from diplomats to generals. And the regime has been unable to fully subdue rebel challenges in the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
But power remains closely guarded within Mr Assad’s inner circle and even the prime minister has limited clout. Because he is not part of that elite, Mr Hijab’s departure will not immediately undercut the regime’s ability to fight rebels in places such as Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which has been pounded by tanks and warplanes.
Nonetheless, the defections carry symbolic importance and show that dissent reaches into the upper levels of government.
Mr Hijab is part of Syria’s Sunni majority, which forms the bedrock of the opposition in the 17-month uprising.
Just hours before word of the defection emerged, a bomb ripped through the state TV building in Damascus, wounding at least three employees and displaying the ability of rebels to strike in the heart of the capital.
Mohammad Otari, Mr Hijab’s spokesman, said the minister started planning his defection when he was given the role two months ago.
Mr Otari said: “The criminal Assad pressed him to become a prime minister and left him no choice but to accept. He had told him, ‘You either accept the position or get killed’.”
He added: “The prime minister defected from the regime of killing, maiming and terrorism. He considers himself a soldier in the revolution.”
Mr Otari said Mr Hijab and his family planned to travel on from Amman, in Jordan, to Qatar, one of the main state backers of the rebels.
Jordan’s information minister, Sameeh Maaytah, denied that Mr Hijab had “defected” to Jordan, but the statement appears to reflect the kingdom’s concern over further angering its more powerful neighbour. Jordan is already giving refuge to 140,000 Syria refugees.
The Syrian opposition celebrated Mr Hijab’s defection. George Sabra, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council, said he expected the desertion to usher in a chain of other similar actions.
Mr Sabra said: “He [Mr Hijab] has finally discovered that this regime is an enemy of its own people and is destined to fall, and he chose to join the ranks of those who defected before him.
“This will trigger a chain of other defections by Syrian senior government and security officials. The Syrian regime is drowning and this is the clearest sign yet.”
Syria’s cabinet met last night under caretaker prime minister Omar Ghalawanji, a session attended by all ministers, information minister Omran Zoabi said.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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