Three top Syrian officers defect to Turkey. How bad for Assad?

Such high-level defections have been rare so far. But if they become more frequent, they could cause Assad's regime to crumble from within.

Raad Al Fares/ Shaam News Network/REUTERS
Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Kafrawaid, near Idlib, June 24.

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A handful of top Syrian military officers defected overnight from Bashar al-Assad's regime, seeking refuge in Turkey amid rising tensions between the neighbors.

The group included 33 soldiers and their families – a total of 224 people, including at least three with a rank of colonel or higher. One of those three may be a general, but reports on the rank of the third high-level defector remain inconclusive.

Defections among low-level Syrian conscript soldiers remain relatively common but such high-level defections have been relatively rare so far. If a general were among those who fled their posts in the Syrian Army, as some reports suggest, it would mark the 13th general to defect to Turkey since the uprising began about 16 months ago, reports Al Jazeera. Turkey is now host to nearly 33,000 Syrian refugees, the government announced last week.

While Assad loyalists still have plenty of weapons to inflict serious damage on rebel forces in Syria, the recent defections are bad news for Assad's regime. And they come at a time of worsening relations between Syria and Turkey, after a Turkish jet was shot down by Syria.

With international actors loath to launch a military intervention in Syria, such defections – if they become more widespread – are seen as one of the only actions that could lead Assad's regime to collapse.

“The military defections become more and more important for Assad's future as it appears that there will be no military response from Turkey, NATO, or the European Union after Syria shot down a Turkish jet. If the attack on Turkey isn't enough to warrant Western intervention, it seems that the only way Assad's regime will fall is if it crumbles from the inside,” writes the Atlantic’s Dashiell Bennett.

Separately, another three Syrian officers, all of them fighter pilots, defected to Jordan yesterday with their families. This came after another Syrian pilot flew his plane into Jordan seeking asylum on June 21.

“The three pilots have entered Jordan in an illegal way and they are currently held by the Jordanian security authorities who are taking them through the regular routine procedures,” reported Al Arabiya’s Ghassan Abu Louz.

Amid the defections, Syria is also facing increased regional pressure as anger mounts among Turkish officials about the downed fighter jet. While the jet reportedly accidentally crossed into Syrian airspace during a training exercise, Turkish officials contend that it was shot down 13 nautical miles outside Syria.

“No one should try to test the capacity of Turkey,” wrote Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in his Twitter feed, reported the New York Times. “Turkey has never acted alone concerning Syria. Has always been part of regional and intl initiatives.”

Turkey has called for a meeting with NATO tomorrow to discuss the incident. Still, it remains unlikely that the incident will change the international stance toward Syria. Britain’s Daily Telegraph, reported that the incident would not “fundamentally alter the situation in Syria,” citing an interview with the UK’s foreign secretary, William Hague.

“I don't think it illustrates a different phase. It's very important that we increase the pressure with additional sanctions,” said Mr. Hague. “Other countries will be very active in arguing for a new resolution from the [United Nations] Security Council.”

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