Middle East
3:53 pm
Mon August 6, 2012

Defection of Syrian Prime Minister A Blow To Assad

Originally published on Mon August 6, 2012 5:44 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

The opposition in Syria is celebrating a political victory today. Syria's prime minister has come over to their side. It is the highest level official defection yet from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beirut, the defection is another blow to the regime following the recent assassination of its defense minister and other top officials.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Riyad Hijab had barely been ushered into the prime minister's office when he apparently began looking for a way out. He was on the job less than two months before defecting. George Sabra, a Paris-based spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council, says Hijab contacted the rebel Free Syrian Army, which helped him and his family escaped to neighboring Jordan. He says the opposition is helping other Syrian officials to do the same.

GEORGE SABRA: We have relations with the Syrian Ministry, with the Syrian administration, with the Syrian diplomats. So we encourage these people for defection and to try to help them to do that.

KUHN: Damascus did not comment on the defection except to say that Hijab had been sacked. Jordan says Hijab will head to Qatar whose government supports the rebels. Sabra says Hijab's defection sends an unmistakable message.

SABRA: The end of the regime has started and nobody now in doubt about the end. So I think it's a declaration that it's the time to escape from the sinking ship.

KUHN: Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says the defection illustrates how sectarian loyalties are replacing loyalties to the state. He notes that Hijab was a Sunni Muslim in charge of economic and administrative issues. He was not part of the security apparatus or the Alawite minority that dominates it. So far, no high-ranking Alawites have jumped ship.

PAUL SALEM: Where Sunnis are feeling no longer part of the regime possibly, or some are feeling that way and are leaving it, it seems so far that most Alawites feel that their faith is connected to this regime.

KUHN: The defection also highlights the ongoing proxy struggle, Salem says, with Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Western governments aiding the rebels, while Russia and Iran backed the Syrian government. Salem says these big powers would prefer to negotiate a handover to a transitional regime, perhaps including figures like Hijab, rather than intervene directly in the conflict.

SALEM: Members of the international community, including Russia certainly and some in the West, still feel that at the end of the day a manage transition - some kind of political process - is the best way out of this crisis.

KUHN: The regime got more bad news earlier in the day when rebels managed to bomb the Syrian state television building in Damascus. Three employees were injured but none were killed.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.