Turkish media reported that at least 85 Syrian troops, including a general and six other officers, defected to Turkey late Monday and brought 300 family members with them in a mass bid for asylum.
In its report on what would be the largest single-day exodus from the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Turkish Anatolia news agency said 14 generals have abandoned their battle-torn homeland since an uprising began in March 2011.
High-level defections had been relatively rare in the early months of the conflict, attesting to the cohesion of Assad’s inner circle, which is made up of members of the country’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.
But Syrian army attrition has escalated in recent weeks, markedly after Assad’s forces shot down a Turkish jet on June 22 that Damascus said had violated Syrian airspace. Ankara insists the plane was downed over international waters, and has stepped up air patrols of its tense, southern border. Another general and 33 other troops crossed over to Turkey during the weekend that followed the plane incident. And on June 21, a Syrian fighter pilot flew his MiG-21 war plane to Jordan and asked for asylum.
Turkey has taken in more than 35,000 Syrian refugees since the campaign to oust Assad began with peaceful protests 16 months ago. Turkish state television said the latest defectors were taken to a refugee camp in Hatay province.
Diplomats and security officials, meanwhile, scrambled to unite Syria’s disjointed opposition forces after failing to secure a detailed plan for who would govern the country once the fighting is contained. A meeting of major powers held in Geneva on Saturday at the request of U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan failed to assure the rebel forces that the international community would insist that Assad be excluded from the postwar leadership. The United States and other Western countries have insisted Assad cannot be part of a transitional government, but Russia has refused to go along, arguing that it is up to the Syrian people to decide who leads them.
The Syrian National Council, a self-styled opposition leadership in exile, said on its Facebook page that it was disappointed with the world leaders’ inability to make clear to Assad that he has no future in the country where his forces have killed at least 10,000. Some rebel groups and observers put the casualty figure at more than 14,000 dead.
“The Geneva declaration lacks a clear mechanism for action and a timetable for implementation and leaves the regime without accountability,” the group said.
In Cairo, where 250 Syrian opposition figures were gathered in hopes of identifying a unified leadership, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby urged Assad opponents to put aside “any narrow differences or factional disputes” and seize the opportunity to provide the international community a single force it can rally around.
Annan’s deputy, Nasser Kidwa, also warned Assad foes that unity was “not an option, but a necessity” if they had any hopes of getting the support of fellow Syrians and aid from abroad.