Ex-Syria PM Urges Defection (WSJ) WALL STREET JOURNAL) By SAM DAGHER BEIRUT, LEBANON 08/15/12)
WALL STREET JOURNAL
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BEIRUT—Syria´s newly defected prime minister was helpless to stop the
regime´s bloody crackdown against its opponents, he said, urging
other military and civilian officials to leave their posts to save
the country and its institutions from collapse.
President Bashar al-Assad´s regime is losing control over most of
Syria, the former minister, Riad Hijab, said in his first public
remarks since he defected earlier this month. "The regime is falling
apart morally, financially and economically, and cracking
militarily," he said.
Mr. Hijab´s assessment dovetails with those of other recent high-
level defectors, largely former military brass, who for months have
said that Mr. Assad´s regime is fragile and that his inner circle is
closing ranks, leaving those in the broader government and military
institutions demoralized but also fearful of crossing those close to
Also on Tuesday, U.S. officials said they saw Iran expanding its
support for Mr. Assad, in part by helping organize a militia in Syria
to fight on behalf of the Assad government. "We are seeing a growing
presence by Iran, and that is of deep concern to us," Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters.
Part of this assessment is based on the U.S. officials´ belief that
several of the 48 Iranian bus passengers captured by Syrian rebels
this month were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The
Iranians were sent to Syria to train government forces and possibly
conduct covert missions to aid the embattled Damascus regime, these
officials said. Iranian and Syrian officials have denied the captives
were government operatives, with Iran saying they were religious
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added
that the Syrian army had been overtaxed after 18 months of fighting.
"They are having resupply problems; they are having morale problems;
they are having the kind of wear and tear that would come of being in
a fight for as long as they have," Gen. Dempsey said. "And I actually
think that´s why Iran is stepping in to form this militia, to take
some of the pressure off of the Syrian military."
Mr. Hijab, a career government and ruling party functionary from the
eastern province of Deir el-Zour on the Iraqi border, was Syria´s
agriculture minister when President Assad appointed him prime
minister in June, a time when government forces had already conducted
brutal operations against Homs and other populated areas. His job was
largely administrative and had no involvement in military, security
and intelligence matters.
But Mr. Hijab´s characterization of his own powerlessness would
suggest that Mr. Assad is continuing to close ranks, leaning on a few
key political and security aides while leaving a largely ceremonial
"God only knows my suffering, and the agony of my soul, when I
watched and heard the shelling of Homs, Deraa, Idlib, Hama, Deir el-
Zour, Aleppo, Damascus and the other cities, and not being able to do
something to shield them from the killing and injustice," he said,
appearing rigid and occasionally hesitant as he read a 15-minute
statement in Jordan´s capital, Amman.
Like the majority of those opposed to the Assad regime, Mr. Hijab is
a member of the country´s Sunni majority. The regime´s inner circle,
by contrast, is dominated by Mr. Assad´s Shiite-linked Alawite
While several top military officials have defected during the
increasingly bloody 18-month Syrian uprising, Mr. Hijab represents
one of the few top officials or diplomats to have broken ranks.
Members of Syria´s opposition and their foreign backers have said
that an increase in such defections would serve as a catalyst for
toppling Mr. Assad.
Nawaf Fares, Syria´s former ambassador to Iraq and the highest-
ranking diplomat to defect, said last month the regime was on
its "last legs."
In his statement on Tuesday, Mr. Hijab appealed to the Syrian armed
forces to follow earlier precedents in the region´s Arab Spring
"I urge the army to follow the example of Egypt´s and Tunisia´s
armies—take the side of the people," he said. Those armies´ reversals
triggered the collapse of their countries´ regimes within weeks.
The U.S. Treasury said Tuesday it was lifting sanctions imposed on
the former official. David Cohen, the department´s undersecretary for
terrorism and financial intelligence, urged other Syrian
officials "to take similarly courageous steps to reject the Assad
regime and stand with the Syrian people."
Meanwhile, some 70 antiregime Sunni Muslim clerics created an
association that they said would seek to rein in human-rights abuses
and revenge attacks by the rebels, according to a statement issued by
the group following a two-day meeting that ended Monday in Doha, the
capital of Qatar.
Several instances of summary executions and torture by the rebels
have been documented by the media and rights groups in the northern
city of Aleppo since fighting began there last month.
Mr. Hijab´s exit from Syria was a covert journey with armed rebels
from Damascus to Deraa, 63 miles to the south, and through the border
to neighboring Jordan, according to people familiar with the escape.
Mr. Hijab left Syrian territory two days after a spokesman in Amman
announced his defection, these people said. At the time of the
statement, these people said, Mr. Hijab was in fact hunkered down in
a safe house in Deraa, then under artillery attack.
Asked the day after the announcement why Mr. Hijab had yet to make a
public appearance, his spokesman, Mohammad al-Outri, said he was
recovering from the "very difficult experience of defecting from
government and the long journey out."
—Julian E. Barnes and Nour Malas contributed to this article.
(Copyright © Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) 08/15/12)
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