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Syria: Despite prime minister's defection, Assad’s inner circle intact (+video)

On Monday, following the defection of Syria's Prime Minister Riad Hijab to Jordan fighting continued, particularly in Damascus and Aleppo. Though Hijab's departure was high-profile, it does not appear to be a threat to Assad's closest allies. 

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Rebels also attempted to storm the state television building in Aleppo before fleeing under heavy shelling, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad London-based group that catalogs the violence.

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The state television building in Damascus also was targeted by rebels, Syria’s official news agency SANA reported Monday, without providing any details of the attack. A photograph accompanying SANA’s account showed people walking through a tangle of wires and other debris with a caption describing the damage as coming from “an explosive device.”

Syrian government troops apparently reclaimed the Damascus neighborhood of Tadamon, where rebel forces had held out since the middle of July. A Syrian general told the Agence France-Presse news agency that the military had restored control of all the capital’s districts.

Anti-Assad activists in Damascus said that the government had suspended some services as the fighting spread.

“The government is no longer the government — it’s just the largest militia in the country,” said an opposition activist who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al Zoubi dismissed as “baseless” reports of other defections besides Hijab’s. Zoubi said the prime minister had been “dismissed” after a Cabinet meeting. Within hours, the government had named an interim successor: Omar Ghalawanji, a Sunni who’s been in the Cabinet for years.

“Syria is a state of institutions, and the defection of individuals, whatever their rank, does not change the policy of the state,” Zoubi said, according to SANA.

Hijab had planned his defection for weeks, according to reports quoting his spokesman, Mohamad Atari, in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Atari said the rebel Free Syrian Army had helped Hijab to escape and that he’d fled with seven of his brothers and their families. So many relatives came because of fears they’d face retaliatory attacks for Hijab’s defection, Atari said.

Assad appointed Hijab as premier in June in what was interpreted by opposition activists as an empty gesture to appease Sunnis and others calling for governmental reform.

“The criminal Assad pressed him to become a prime minister and left him no choice but to accept the position,” Atari said, according to news reports.

“The prime minister defected from the regime of killing, maiming and terrorism. He considers himself a soldier in the revolution,” he added.

Officials in Jordan confirmed that Hijab had arrived in their country Monday morning, but they added that he would not remain. Arab news agencies said the family was likely to seek refuge in Qatar, a wealthy Persian Gulf state that has poured money into the Syrian rebel movement.

(Special correspondent Frenkel reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent David Enders contributed from the Syrian-Iraqi border.)

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