Syrian general abandons President Assad

Becomes highest-ranking officer to defect

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Syria's embattled leadership suffered a new setback Wednesday with the publicly broadcast defection of its military police chief, the highest-ranking officer to abandon President Bashar Assad since the uprising against him began nearly two years ago.

The defector, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, announced his move in a video broadcast by Al Arabiya, saying he had taken the step because of what he called the Syrian military's deviation from "its fundamental mission to protect the nation and transformation into gangs of killing and destruction."

Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab broadcaster critical of the Syrian government, first broadcast the video late Tuesday, and opposition figures confirmed its authenticity Wednesday, saying the general was somewhere in Turkey.

They said Gen. Shallal's defection had been arranged weeks ago through tribal elders in Syria, and that the effort to smuggle him across the border, over several days, included a four-hour motorcycle ride. Turkey has been the main destination point for Syrian military defectors, and many of them have regrouped there to join the Free Syrian Army, the main insurgent force fighting Mr. Assad.

Reading from a prepared statement while sitting at a desk, dressed in a camouflage uniform with red epaulets, the general did not specify in his message when he had decided to defect, but said he had been "waiting for the right circumstances to do so." He also said "there are other high-ranking officers who want to defect, but the situation is not suitable for them to declare defection."

While the general's defection was broadly embraced by opposition figures as a major blow to the government, the general, a Sunni Muslim, was not believed to be a member of the president's inner circle of advisers. Over the course of the conflict, despite welcoming thousands of defectors, the opposition has failed to attract figures seen as critical pillars of the government or any members of the ruling Alawite minority of Mr. Assad, the sect regarded as the military's backbone.

Nonetheless, the general's denunciation of the Syrian military was, at the least, a new embarrassment to Mr. Assad, further undermining his repeated claims that the uprising against him is basically the work of terrorists and their foreign collaborators.

Gen. Shallal's statement came as Syrian insurgents were claiming new territorial gains against Mr. Assad in the country's northern and central parts and as a United Nations-Arab League special envoy was visiting Damascus as part of an effort to reach a political settlement that would halt the conflict, the most violent of the Arab Spring revolutions that began in the winter of 2010-2011. More than 40,000 people have been killed since protests against Mr. Assad began in March 2011.

There has been speculation that the special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, presented Mr. Assad with proposals for relinquishing his authority and possibly leaving the country. Mr. Assad, whose Alawite minority has ruled Syria for more than four decades, has consistently said he will not leave the country, even as his control over it seems to be slipping further away.

Dozens of lower-ranking Syrian military officers and hundreds of soldiers have fled Syria over the past two years. Gen. Shallal, head of the Syrian army's military police division, is the highest-ranking military defector so far. He outranked Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a boyhood friend of Mr. Assad's, who fled in July. Gen. Tlass is now believed to be living in France.

Among civilians who have abandoned Mr. Assad, the highest-ranking defector so far has been the prime minister, Riad Farid Hijab, who fled to Jordan on Aug. 6. In the past few weeks, unconfirmed reports also have abounded about the possible defection of Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, a smooth-talking English speaker who had numerous foreign contacts and who disappeared from public view in early December.

The Lebanese TV channel Al Manar, which is sympathetic to Mr. Assad, said Mr. Makdissi had been fired. The Guardian reported this week that Mr. Makdissi had fled to the United States and was cooperating with U.S. intelligence. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Wednesday that Mr. Makdissi was not in the United States. His whereabouts and status remain murky. U.S. officials said they don't know where he is, and that reports earlier this month saying he had flown to London were incorrect.

In Lebanon, Syria's interior minister, Mohammed al-Shaar, who had been recovering at a Beirut hospital from wounds said to have been received in a Dec. 12 suicide bombing outside his offices in Damascus, was on his way back to the Syrian capital Wednesday. The Associated Press quoted Beirut airport officials as saying the minister flew home on a private jet.

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