Syria: Endgame for the Assad dictatorship?

**Posted by Phineas

If not the beginning of the end, having one’s prime minister run away and defect is not a sign that all is going well:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government suffered a significant blow Monday when Prime Minister Riyad Hijab fled with his family to Jordan, two months after taking the top post.

Hijab said he defected. Syrian state media said he was fired.

“I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution,” Hijab said in a statement read in his name on Al Jazeera television.

State television, however, said Hijab was terminated and replaced by his deputy, Omar Ghalawanji.

The news came hours after state media said a bomb exploded at the state television building in Damascus, wounding several people.

Mind you, Hijab was only appointed late last June. He probably packed his bags before going to his swearing-in ceremony.

Regardless of whether he was fired or quit, this is another sign that the Assad dictatorship, often described as a mafia-government that kept the family’s Alawite sect on top of Syrian society, is crumbling faster and faster. Just three weeks ago, a bomb blast in Damascus killed the Syrian defense minister, a former defense minister, and Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, showing that not even the core of the regime is safe from the rebels. After that, I’m sure that other Syrian officials besides Mr. Hajib have had similar thoughts of saving themselves:

Hijab’s departure followed an accelerating stream of defections from Syria’s armed forces, including that of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, a former confidant and close friend of Assad’s who fled to Turkey a month ago, then went to France to join his father, a once-powerful former defense minister.

Last week, Syria’s top diplomat in Britain defected, telling the British Foreign Office that “he is no longer willing to represent a regime that has committed such violent and oppressive acts against its own people, and is therefore unable to continue in his position.”

Real power in Syria is wielded by Assad’s inner circle of friends, family and the powerful chiefs of his security forces. But the defection of the head of Assad’s government nonetheless sent a strong signal that his support is rapidly unraveling even within the ranks of those assumed still to be loyal.

Hijab, a former agriculture minister and a member of the ruling Baath Party, is a Sunni Muslim from the eastern town of Deir el-Zour, which has been in open revolt against the government for more than a year.

The Associated Press, quoting rebel leader Ahmad Kassim, said three other ministers defected along with Hijab, but that report could not be separately confirmed.

In addition, the wire service said that Turkey’s state-run news agency reported that Syria’s first astronaut had joined opposition forces. Mohammad Ahmad Faris, 61, crossed into Turkey after reaching the headquarters of the Free Syrian Army in the city of Aleppo, meeting with rebel commanders there and declaring his solidarity with the umbrella group of rebel fighters, the Anadolu agency reported.

This uprising in Syria is largely Sunni vs. Alawite, and there have been atrocities committed by both sides. Regional actors are deeply involved, the Saudis giving substantial aid to Sunni jihadist elements, while Iran has dispatched Revolutionary Guards to aid the regime. Turkey may be mobilizing an army on the border with its former province, and the Russians have sent in their marines.

Meanwhile, what’s our Smart Power team doing? We issued a statement:

Meanwhile, in Washington, the White House said the defection indicates the momentum is with opposition forces and the Syrian people.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the defections are reaching the highest levels of the Syrian government and demonstrate that the Syrian people believe Assad’s days are numbered.

Vietor said the quickest way to end the bloodshed in Syria is for Assad to recognize that the Syrian people will not allow him to continue in power. And Vietor renewed U.S. calls for Assad to leave power and allow for a political transition.

Of course, and in fairness, there’s not much Clinton, who’s on her way to Turkey for talks, could do in this situation. Three years of the “Obama Doctrine” (whatever that is) have made US influence in the Middle East nearly a joke and, absent strong leadership from us, local forces and regional actors are going to look out for their own interests. Apparently we do have …er… “secret plans” to assist the rebels, though how much influence that would give us is an open and even dubious question, as is the consequences of any intervention on our part; don’t forget that Barack’s Big Adventure in Libya was a direct (and unintended) factor in the collapse of neighboring Mali.

While the Syrian regime seems to be heading for its fall, and while there are good humanitarian and geopolitical arguments for intervening (the weakening of Hizbullah being one of the latter), there are very good arguments against it, such as the risk of empowering Sunni jihadists and getting involved in another sectarian war so soon after Iraq.

Perhaps the best thing to do is just what the administration appears to be doing: call for a transition, keep everyone talking, aid the rebels a little to keep the door open with them and perhaps strengthen the hand of whatever moderates there may be, and offer what good offices we have to all sides to prevent Syria’s civil war from becoming a regional conflict.

LINK: More at Hot Air.

(Crossposted at Public Secrets)

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