News / Middle East

Defection Highlights Sectarian Divide in Syrian Government

In this undated photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, center, speaks under the portrait of the Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting in Damascus, Syria.In this undated photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, center, speaks under the portrait of the Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting in Damascus, Syria.
x
In this undated photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, center, speaks under the portrait of the Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting in Damascus, Syria.
In this undated photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, center, speaks under the portrait of the Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting in Damascus, Syria.
The defection of Syria's Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Riad Hijab is the latest sign of a sectarian split in the Alawite-dominated government of President Bashar al-Assad.
 
Hijab fled to Jordan on Monday, just two months after the Syrian president appointed him to the post. In a statement released by a spokesman, Hijab pledged his loyalty to the rebels trying to oust his former boss, whom he accused of running a "regime of killing and terror." The Syrian government said the prime minister had been fired. 
 
The prime minister is the highest-level civilian official to defect since the start of the 17-month uprising against Assad's autocratic rule. Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, said all senior civilian figures who have abandoned Assad in recent months have something in common: they are members of Syria's Sunni majority. 
 
Sectarian Trend
 
"There's a sectarian dimension to this," he said. "[Hijab's defection] is in keeping with that trend. Sunnis who were brought into the regime in the 1970s are increasingly breaking off and going against the regime, which is breaking along sectarian lines."
 
President Assad belongs to the Alawite Islam sect, which makes up only about 10 percent of Syria's population. Three-quarters of Syrians are followers of Sunni Islam, while the remainder include Christians, Druze, Ismailis and Twelver Shi'ites.
 
Speaking from Beirut, Tabler said the Sunni defections have undermined Mr. Assad because the defectors had helped him to rule over majority Sunnis, many of whom resent the Alawite control of the country. 
 
Tabler said Assad's choice of Hijab as prime minister reflects another weakness. "Obviously, Assad doesn't know very much about the loyalties of Sunnis who have worked in his government for decades," he said. 
 
Defying Setbacks
 
The prime minister's position was largely symbolic, with most authority concentrated in the president's hands. The former prime minister was not part of Syria's powerful security apparatus dominated by Mr. Assad's family and Alawite supporters who have stood by the president. 
 
Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Assad also has been able to keep other Sunnis in senior government posts. 
 
"You're going to see the Assad regime continue to try to populate some of these positions with minority groups like Orthodox Christians, but also critically with the Sunni community so that [the regime] maintains at least the impression if not the illusion of cross-confessional representation within the Cabinet," said Nerguizian. 
 
Assad moved swiftly to replace Mr. Hijab, appointing another Sunni, Omar Ibrahim Ghalawanji, as caretaker prime minister. Ghalawanji was born in Tartus and served as a city councilman in Latakia - two coastal regions with significant Alawite communities loyal to Assad. Prior to Ghalawanji's new appointment, he served as a minister for local government. 
 
Survival Strategy
 
Reached by phone in Beirut, Nerguizian said the Syrian president's actions show that he has developed an ability to survive internal crises. "As far back as March of last year, the Assad regime has learned and implemented all of the 'best lessons' of authoritarianism, in terms of how to repress, how to divide, and how to weaken opponents," he said. 
 
Nerguizian said the Sunni defections also have hardened the position of Assad's Alawite generals, making them more concerned about survival than anything else. "I would not be surprised if the Assad regime looked at [Hijab's defection] and dismissed it outright, given the fact that individuals like him will not be viewed necessarily as life threatening."
 
Syria's information minister reacted defiantly to the news. Syrian state news agency SANA quoted Omran al-Zoubi as saying "Syria is a state of institutions and the defection of individuals, however high-ranking, will not affect the government."
 

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. More

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

Dropout rate at an all-time high in South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during 3-year civil war More

Tennessee Songbirds Fly Coop Long Before Tornadoes Arrive

Researchers say birds apparently alerted to danger by sounds at frequencies below range of human hearing More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: the Lord from: Bajdocja
August 07, 2012 5:47 AM
Both President of Poland Bronislaw Komorowski and President of Syria Bashar al-Assad has been poisoned and isolated by Blosheviks. Both Dimitri Medvedev and Mitt Romney was not informed and whole plot has been directed against them.

More on Google+: http://bit.ly/OW6pHo


by: Anonymous
August 06, 2012 11:57 PM
There is lots of blood on Russian Governments hands day by day, even the Prime Minister of Syria claims that Assad is running a killing / terror regime. I think as more of the truth comes out, Russia will be punished even more by the world. Putin is a terrible leader for Russia, I wish he would get ousted. Backing terrorist leaders like Assad, that are currently inflicting deliberate terror on a country's own citizens doesn't get you anywhere. Russian government is just as bad as the Assad regime. Providing the weapons that most Syrians are killed by, and not stopping Assad from his killing spree. Being buddies with people like Assad means you are just as bad as them yourself.

Hey Russian people, you are all great people, just remember how Putin acted in this scenario... Putin would do the exact same thing in Russia if the public tried to oust Putin, fire on his own people.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportionali
X
Aru Pande
December 19, 2014 1:45 AM
The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video US: Response to Sony Hack Will Be Proportional

The White House says President Barack Obama considers the cyberattack on Sony Corp. a serious national security matter and that the U.S. will counter with an "appropriate response." VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid