Rebels, observers dispute importance of Syrian prime minister's defection

Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab has defected from the Assad regime, but there have still been no defections among Alawite members of government, which would be the more telling sign.

In this undated photo released by the Syrian official news agency (SANA) on Sunday, Aug. 5, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab (c.) speaks under the portrait of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Damascus, Syria. Hijab defected and fled to neighboring Jordan, a Jordanian official and a rebel spokesman said Monday.

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A day after Syria’s highest-ranking defector to date left the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad, Syrians and the international community alike are at odds over how big an impact it will have on the conflict there.

Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab fled the country overnight, arriving in Jordan early yesterday morning. Through his spokesman, he called the Syrian government a “terrorist regime." It remains unclear where Mr. Hijab is now, but some reports have placed him in Qatar, one of the biggest supporters of the Syrian opposition.

Rebels were quick to paint the defection as a major step forward for their cause.

“This is a proof that the political basis of the regime is collapsing,” said Samir Nachar, a leader of the Syrian National Council, according to The New York Times. “This is the momentum we needed to tell the political and military elite that it is time for them to jump off the sinking ship.”

While immediately inspiring for many rebels, it remains uncertain how much momentum Mr. Hijab’s defection will provide Syrian rebels and how deep it will cut into the Assad regime. Long-time Middle East journalist and commentator Robert Fisk writes that the defection is symbolic but not a “body blow” to Assad.

“Like the generals and diplomats who have preceded him into exile, the Prime Minister was a Sunni Muslim, and it is the Alawite minority within the Baath Party and the government upon which Bashar relies. They still stand loyally behind him,” wrote Mr. Fisk.

Assad appointed Hijab as prime minister this June and threatened to kill him if he didn’t take the job, reports the Associated Press. Shortly after taking office, he began making plans to leave the country, sending family members out of Syria and eventually fleeing to the border with his wife and children.

The United States has not directly involved itself in the Syrian conflict, but American officials have been vocal about their opposition to the Assad regime. The US also appears to be increasing indirect and clandestine support to Syrian rebels, banking on their ability to topple the regime. An official from the State Department said that Hijab’s defection is evidence that the Syrian government is “crumbling.”

Its days are numbered, and we call on other senior members of the regime and the military to break with the bloody past and help chart a new path for Syria — one that is peaceful, democratic, inclusive, and just,” a senior State Department official told the Washington Post.

Meanwhile fighting rages on in Syria with most violence focused on Aleppo, the nation’s largest city. Government forces continue to shell the city and have sent reinforcements, bringing the total of Syrian troops in the area up to 20,000, reports Al Jazeera. Though many neighborhoods in Aleppo have seen fierce clashes, some reports indicate that the Syrian military may be biding its time before launching a major assault. With 2.7 million residents, United Nations officials have urged both sides to be cautious about inflicting civilian casualties.

“I urge the parties to protect civilians and respect their obligations under international humanitarian law. Civilians must not be subjected to shelling and use of heavy weapons,” said Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, the head of the UN observer mission in Syria.

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