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Syria High-level Defections Reveal Assad Weakness

  • David Arnold

Nawaf Fares, left, is sworn in as Syria's ambassador to Iraq before President Bashar al-Assad, right, and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Damascus, September 16, 2008.

Nawaf Fares, left, is sworn in as Syria's ambassador to Iraq before President Bashar al-Assad, right, and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Damascus, September 16, 2008.

The defection of Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, could be the beginning of large-scale defections by high government officials from the government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to regional experts.

Defections of rank-and-file military, mostly Sunnis, have increased as levels of government brutality grew during months of public protest against 42-year Assad family dictatorship. The Fares defection last week is the second among the Sunni elite in the Assad administration. The ambassador’s announcement was broadcast on Al-Jazeera a week after the defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, a Republican Guard commander and the highest-ranking military officer in the regime to turn against Assad.

The ambassador who turned against his president

In announcing his defection, the ambassador resigned from the government’s ruling Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party, called on “all Syrian people to unite” and invited members of the military to “turn your guns towards the criminals from this regime.”

"I declare that I have joined, from this moment, the ranks of the revolution of the Syrian people, which is my natural place during these hard times and circumstances,” Fares said in the pre-recorded statement while seated in front of a photograph of the flag of the Syrian revolution.

Fares began his political career as secretary of the Ba'ath Party in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria and was appointed ambassador to Iraq in 2008, after serving the Assad administration as governor of the Lattakia, Idlib and Quneitra governates. He is a tribal leader of the al-Dameem clan in the Jazira region of northeastern Syria, southern Turkey and northern Iraq. The Syrian Arab News Association released a statement on Thursday in which a clan spokesman in Deir Ezzor issued a disavowal of Fares’s decision.

Will more Sunnis abandon the Assad regime?

The defections by Tlass and Fares are seen by some regional experts as the catalyst for more high-level Sunnis abandoning Assad and his Alawite leadership. Further Sunni defections could weaken the government and reveal a growing sectarian divide in the country, the experts say.
We are beginning to see that now they’re running for the exits,” said Landis. “That alliance is beginning to come undone.

Assad is a member of the Alawite sect of Islam and has surrounded himself with other Alawite officials, but has depended on Sunnis for much of his support. Sunnis make up approximately 70 percent of the population, and Alawites are about 12 percent.

“This regime depends on an alliance between Alawites and Sunnis,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma. The departure of two prominent Sunnis may trigger a cascade of Sunni defections, he said.

“We are beginning to see that now they’re running for the exits,” said Landis. “That alliance is beginning to come undone.”

“If that begins to cascade, it will leave the Alawites completely naked and this is another indication that the struggle in Syria is turning into a sectarian struggle.”

How defectors now threaten Assad

Some experts have predicted that despite global condemnation, Assad’s government could last at least another year. Landis said large-scale defections of elite such as Tlass and Fares could shorten Assad’s survival.

Both high-profile declarations follow months of defections from the military, mostly among conscripts and lower-ranking officers, largely Sunnis. During the army’s assaults on neighborhoods known to be sympathetic to the rebels, hundreds of military conscripts and officers have refused to fire on Syrian civilians.

Many soldiers have abandoned their posts, held their government identification cards up on YouTube videos and joined the rebel’s Free Syrian Army. They have turned into a significant part of the revolutionary forces that protected demonstrators in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo and, more recently, Damascus.

The Free Syrian Army has grown into several battalions operating independently of one another. Collectively, they now control several regions of the country.

It is clear that the ability of the regime to control things is waning...
The Tlass defection had special importance because the general, whose father had served as minister of defense to the president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was “very close to Bashar and it was much more harmful to the regime,” said Landis. The Tlass departure, however, was less public than Fares’s departure.

The Fares defection that followed “is symbolic of upper-level defections that could become very frequent and very devastating for the government,” Landis said.

Defections increase as rebels gain territory

“The timing is what’s important,” said Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New American Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

Speaking from Istanbul, Slim said recent interviews with military defectors indicated they were reluctant to join the revolution because the regime would punish their families.

Now, Slim said, “They see their relatives back home may not be punished” because Assad does not have control over some areas of the country.

“It is clear that the ability of the regime to control things is waning, and the ability to enforce punishment on defectors is waning.” she said. “People are becoming bolder in seeking a way out.”

Bureaucrats, shopkeepers and students stay home

International media have focused on the public defections from the military, but Slim said worker strikes in Damascus and in other cities in recent months have encouraged far higher numbers of what she calls silent defections.
The balance of power is changing... the opposition is getting stronger.

“These are government employees who are not going to work, citizens who are not paying taxes, shops are closed, students who are striking,” said Slim.

There is definitely a momemtm building up inside Syria … that seems to suggest people still working for the regime think that the regime’s days are numbered.”

Sunni commercial interests historically supported the Assad government, but Slim said “even among business elite, people who in the past stood in support of the regime now believe the status quo is no longer attainable.”

“The balance of power is changing,” said Landis. “We’re seeing month by month the opposition is getting stronger and stronger and getting better weapons and it’s getting better command and control.”

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