Syria’s Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected on Monday, less than two months into the job, along with two, perhaps three, other Cabinet ministers, according to the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). As has become customary, President Bashar Assad’s regime had a very different take on the development, insisting that Hijab had been sacked and had not jumped ship.
Hijab’s own words, however, made it clear which version was true. “I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime, and I announce that I have joined the ranks of freedom and dignity,” Hijab said in a statement read on al-Jazeera by his spokesman. “I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution.”
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The SNC and other opposition members hailed the action, welcoming the highest-ranking civilian defector in the 17-month crisis. While that designation may be technically true, it’s unlikely to markedly alter events on the ground. Syrian Prime Ministers — and Cabinet ministers in general — do not wield any sort of real power in a decades-old system that is basically the Assad family business. The Syrian parliament has long been just a rubber-stamp body, falsely signifying a popular ability to freely choose elected representatives in a system that does not permit real freedom or real choice.
The defection is, however, hugely symbolic: a humiliation to Assad, and another brushstroke filling out the picture of a decrepit regime, its thinning senior ranks held together by collective culpability for the blood it has spilled — as well as its blood and communal ties. The regime is cracking under the sustained pressure of a continuing revolt and international sanctions.
Hijab is a Sunni from the restive eastern city of Deir ez-Zor. As such, he was already a relative outsider in a regime stacked with Assad’s Alawite co-religionists. He and his family reportedly fled to Jordan and were expected to head to Qatar, according to media reports. His desertion also solidifies the notion of an Alawite-dominated regime vs. a predominantly Sunni opposition, although in reality it is not as simple or sectarian. (There are, for example, Alawite members of the opposition and Sunni loyalists in the regime.)
But the fact is, even Brigadier General Manaf Tlass’s desertion did not create the kind of ripple effects on the ground to markedly alter the course of this crisis, although it too was steeped in symbolism. Tlass, also a Sunni Muslim, is the highest-ranking member of the military to split from his longtime friend Assad, but his action did not divide the military. Hundreds of generals and other senior officers did not follow Tlass.
Still, in the past few weeks, the trickle of defectors has increased. There are now more than two dozen generals reportedly in Turkey, up from a dozen several weeks ago, although they did not defect en masse (i.e., they were individual defections, not a concerted and dramatic group effort). The Syrian crisis is a war of attrition, played out militarily in towns and villages across the country as well as politically as insiders switch sides. However, the two halves of the anti-Assad movement — the political and the military — are becoming increasingly estranged as events on the ground take on a momentum of their own, divorced from political developments.
Hijab’s defection — or even Tlass’s for that matter — does not really factor into the calculations of local rebel commanders in the Free Syrian Army, for example, although they are welcome morale boosters. Apart from that, what these senior defectors do bring with them is knowledge of the recent inner workings of the regime and the ability to pinpoint potential weaknesses. And at the end of the day, every defector is another person Assad can no longer count on.