Syria: Despite prime minister's defection, Assad’s inner circle intact

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. 

AP Photo/SANA
In this undated photo, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, center, speaks under the portrait of the Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting in Damascus, Syria. Hijab defected and fled to Jordan, a Jordanian official and a rebel spokesman said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s administration struck a defiant tone Monday, renewing its counterattack on rebel forces in the country’s largest cities and vowing to stay in place, despite the defection of the country’s prime minister.

The defection of Prime Minister Riad Hijab to Jordan was the highest-profile departure from Assad’s government so far, but analysts said it was unlikely to indicate a fatal fissure in his inner circle. Hijab, who’d been appointed just two months ago, is a Sunni Muslim, while Assad’s most ironclad allies are fellow members of his minority Alawite sect. Assad appointed a successor within hours.

Sectarian rhetoric has worsened on both sides of the nascent civil war in recent weeks, with the regime portraying the rebels as Sunni terrorists and the rebels calling Alawites heretics and blaming them for Assad’s ability to withstand international isolation and sanctions for 17 months. Human rights groups already are raising concern that Alawites will face bloody reprisal attacks should Assad fall.

About five Alawite clans, all linked through intermarriage and business interests, control the real power bases in Syria — such as the security apparatus and the military — and there have been no notable defections from their ranks, said Ammar Abdulhamid, an exiled opposition member who is on the Syria Working Group at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, a think tank in Washington.

“They control the key decision-making process in tactical terms,” Abdulhamid said of the powerful Alawite dynasties. “The defection shows that the regime has lost control of an old game: the Sunni fig leaf.”

Other reported defectors — including at least two more Cabinet ministers, members of the security apparatus, and Syria’s first astronaut — were said to have left the regime over the weekend, according to opposition activists. The claims couldn’t be independently verified and their strategic significance was unknown. The government denied that others had defected.

Assad’s government has lost control of much of Syria’s rural north and has been battling opposition guerrillas in at least six urban areas, including the capital, Damascus, since four of the president’s top security aides were killed in a bombing at the state security headquarters July 18.

It was difficult to determine, however, who had the upper hand in fighting in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s largest city and its business hub.

Opposition activists and journalists on the ground reported that fighter jets and helicopter gunships pounded rebel targets in Aleppo, and there were signs that the rebels were giving up ground. A reporter for the Turkish newspaper Zaman wrote Monday that rebels had abandoned their headquarters in Aleppo on Saturday after government planes dropped bombs nearby. The reporter said Syrian government aircraft also could be seen bombing the Salahadin neighborhood two miles away, but that it was impossible to reach the neighborhood because of the presence of loyalist troops.

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.

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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