Syrian prime minister flees to Jordan in dark
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BEIRUT -- The defection of Syria's prime minister, Riyad Farid Hijab, began like so many others: with coded conversations and furtive planning. He began discussing the idea of fleeing, an aide said, as soon as President Bashar Assad strong-armed him into taking the job in June.
In recent days, he worked to get his extended family out. Then, early Monday, the prime minister slipped out of Damascus under cover of darkness with his wife and four children, scrambling through the desert as a fugitive. At sunrise, he crossed into Ramtha, Jordan, shocking the Syrian regime -- which immediately claimed that he had been fired -- and spurring jubilation within a weary opposition.
"This is a proof that the political basis of the regime is collapsing," said Samir Nachar, a leader of the Syrian National Council, the main exile opposition group. "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."
Mr. Hijab's journey began when he climbed into a simple car with a driver who did not know his identity, according to an account provided by a Free Syrian Army commander, an activist at the Syria-Jordan border and Mr. Hijab's spokesman. He traveled down roads lined with rebel lookouts until he reached a contested stretch of border. Finally, he made his dramatic departure from Syria.
The Assad regime -- nearly a year and a half into the conflict -- remains surprisingly strong where it counts. Its powerful military pounded rebels again Monday in Aleppo, Damascus and other cities.
Many analysts question whether the defection of another Sunni leader, no matter his place in the hierarchy, is enough to swing the conflict to a conclusion. The war, after all, has already taken on a blunt rhythm of violence, sectarianism and revenge that does not necessarily respond to the finer pitches of politics and defection.
And yet the scale of the Hijab defection -- involving 10 prominent Sunni families who escaped in small groups over the past week -- suggests that Mr. Assad is losing the loyalty of Sunni political and security officials crucial to his minority regime's ability to hold power.
His feared internal security apparatus also seems to be cracking. Mr. Hijab, the highest-level official to leave the government, was closely watched by the Assad regime, which nonetheless failed to keep him from communicating with the opposition for months and arranging for dozens of relatives to leave Damascus, where government agents are concentrated.
"This is someone who was very, very close, and they couldn't keep him," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Center for the Middle East. He added that while the impact was not cataclysmic, "it's a sign of advanced decrepitude."
Mr. Hijab's departure came less than a month after four members of Mr. Assad's inner circle were killed in a Damascus bomb attack that raised serious questions about the cohesiveness of the embattled government.
On Monday, rebels struck again close to the regime's core, bombing the third floor of the government television and radio headquarters, which have been used to reassure the population that Mr. Assad remains in control. No one died this time, but the explosion -- shown on Syrian television, where officials insisted that it was insignificant -- again highlighted the rebels' ability to breach government institutions.
Defections highlight another vulnerability: betrayal within the ranks of supposed loyalists. Over the past few months, there has been a steady flow of high- and mid-level figures announcing that they have turned on the regime. In recent days, in addition to Mr. Hijab, Syria's most famous astronaut, an Air Force officer named Ahmed Faris, fled to Turkey, pledging his loyalty to the opposition.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the defections were "a sign that Assad's grip on power is loosening."
Most defectors have been members of the Sunni majority, breaking away from a regime dominated by Mr. Assad's Alawite minority. Mr. Hijab, who has served in government most of his life after receiving a Ph.D in agriculture, is typical. The well-educated head of a Sunni family drawn into government by Mr. Assad's father in an effort to add legitimacy to his government, he benefited from the government's patronage before finally rejecting it.
Two of his brothers followed a similar path, with the opposition reporting that they held high positions at the ministries of oil and the environment before they fled the country. And by leaving, said Lebanese political analyst Sami Nader, they are stripping Mr. Assad of his "Sunni veneer."
With the defection of such a senior-level Sunni family, Mr. Nader said, it will be harder for the Assad regime to claim that it is a national government representing all Syrians. But few analysts, or even opposition leaders, seemed to believe that this latest high-profile defection would be anywhere near enough to end the conflict.
The exuberance surrounding the early reports of Mr. Hijab's defection partly reflected claims that at least two other Cabinet-level officials would be joining him. Mohammad Otari, Mr. Hijab's spokesman, said that was never true, and that the plan had always been limited to Hijab and his family. "There were no ministers involved," he said. "There was no one left behind."
First Published August 7, 2012 12:00 am