Latest defection does not signal the end for Assad
High-level defections give the misleading impression that the regime is disintegrating, writes MICHAEL JANSENin Damascus
THE DEFECTION to the opposition by Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab is a serious public relations blow to the regime and a dramatic political coup for the external opposition and the rebel Free Syrian Army.
However, Hijab’s departure is unlikely to bring about the downfall of the regime or effect major changes in its policies.
Syria’s prime ministers, traditionally members of the majority Sunni community, have little decision-making authority, which ultimately rests with the president.
However, Hijab, a former agriculture minister, was apparently popular with the public and had proved himself a competent administrator while serving as a provincial governor.
Although he had been a member of the Baath Party’s command since 1998 and served in senior posts, he did not belong to the inner circle of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad or to his crisis management team.
Therefore, the impact of Hijab’s desertion is far less than last month’s assassination of four figures belonging to these two important groupings.
On July 18th, a bomb planted inside a security office while officials were meeting killed Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, a close associate who served as deputy defence minister. The crisis team members who were killed in the bombing were Hafez Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin who was head of investigations at the main intelligence agency, vice-president Hassan Turkmani, and defence minister Daoud Rajha.
Nevertheless, Hijab’s defection cannot be discounted.
Hijab, who was born in 1966 in the eastern oil centre of Deir al-Zor, is the second notable defector from this area, which has for decades resented neglect by Damascus. Both men are significant figures because of tribal ties, a source said.
The first to defect from this strategic region was Syria’s ambassador in Baghdad, Nawaf Fares, who turned up in Qatar in early July and declared he had joined the opposition.
Fares’s decision was of importance because he belongs to an influential tribe that straddles Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
Existing alienation of the Deir al-Zor tribes has deepened due to the regime’s crackdown on dissent.
Last month, Brig Gen Manaf Tlass, a childhood friend of Assad, defected and is, for the time being, in Saudi Arabia, the chief sponsor of the external political opposition as well as the rebel fighters. At the time of his defection, Tlass, son of a former defence minister, had been excluded from the ranks of decision-makers for at least a year.
Gen Muhammad Fares, the first Syrian to go into space, reportedly defected to Turkey last weekend. However, his departure was largely ignored in Syria itself.
Thirty other general officers, most of them brigadiers, have crossed into Turkey to join the rebels but there have been no major defections from the military high command, where key posts are held by members of Assad’s heterodox Shia Alawite community as well as by loyal Christians and Sunnis.
So far, the armed forces senior command has remained committed to Assad and there have been no massive desertions to the rebels by soldiers from the ranks. Consequently the government continues to enjoy military superiority over the rebels, although the army cannot defeat them and they cannot defeat the army.
For the time being, regime forces and rebels are engaged in campaigns of attrition against each other.
The opposition’s war of attrition, however, extends to the political dimension as well as the military plane. This is where defections, particularly of well-placed members of the government and the military, gain importance.
However, such defections give the misleading impression that the regime is disintegrating. This is, so far, not the case, although it is under serious challenge.
The main reason the regime retains its hold on power is its continuing operational effectiveness in areas under its control. In spite of the 17-month rebellion, the state has not crumbled – as it did in Iraq following the 2003 US invasion and occupation – and the administration continues to function.
Rebels have targeted police stations, hospitals and other public facilities but have not been able to weaken the state fundamentally or fatally disrupt power and water supplies, bin collection, delivery of food and fuel or the services of the bureaucracy.
Indeed, as soon as the army regains its hold on areas captured or infiltrated by rebels, services are restored and life returns to normal for residents wherever possible. This gives them a sense of security, at least on a temporary basis.
The rebels are also well aware that massive disruptions would punish and antagonise the populace and that the majority of Syrians simply want an end to violence and some sort of political solution.