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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs