News / Middle East

Sources: Defecting Assad Ally in Istanbul

Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, General Hassan Turkmani, right, and General Ali Habib, chief of staff, left, tomb of the unknown martyr, near Damascus, Oct. 6, 2007.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, General Hassan Turkmani, right, and General Ali Habib, chief of staff, left, tomb of the unknown martyr, near Damascus, Oct. 6, 2007.
TEXT SIZE - +
Reuters
— Bashar al-Assad's former defense minister has reached Istanbul after a defection that betrays cracks in the president's support among his own Alawite sect, opposition and diplomatic sources said on Thursday.
 
Dismissing a cursory Syrian state television denial of the first Reuters report that General Ali Habib had been spirited across the Turkish frontier this week, opposition figures said Habib was likely to keep a low profile after evading house arrest and reaching Turkey with the aid of Western agents.
 
One prominent opposition figure also spoke of speculation that Habib, who is in his 70s and apparently broke with Assad after a crackdown on protesters in 2011, might be lined up by U.S. and Russian officials for a role in transitional arrangements to negotiate an end to the civil war.
 
While Washington and Moscow are fiercely at odds over U.S. plans for military action, international powers all say they see such a longer-term political settlement as vital for peace.
 
“My information, based on a trusted Western source, is that he is in Istanbul,” veteran dissident Kamal al-Labwani, now based in Paris, told Reuters on Thursday. “Habib exited with Western intelligence involvement, so do not expect public statements by security operatives on his whereabouts.”
 
A source in one of the Gulf Arab states that is backing the revolt against Assad said Habib had crossed Turkey's southern border after dark on Tuesday and had reached Istanbul, a base for the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition.
 
A Western diplomatic source said he had confirmation that Habib had defected and was in Turkey. He dismissed a brief report on Syrian state television on Wednesday which said he was still at his home. The station has not repeated that denial and other state media have not mentioned Habib.
 
The television did not identify Habib's home. The general comes from the town of Safita, near the port of Tartous in the Alawite heartland along the coast between Lebanon and Turkey.
 
The Turkish government, which hosts facilities for Syrian military officers who have defected, has not confirmed the general's presence. He has not been seen in public this week.
 
Alawite rifts
 
Numerous senior military and political figures have deserted Assad since 2011. But most have been from the country's Sunni Muslim majority, particularly as the civil war has taken on more sectarian aspects, with Sunnis even from the wealthier classes complaining of domination by Assad's minority Alawites.
 
The defection of Sunni officers has failed to cripple the core of the Syrian security forces, in which Alawites play a leading role. But the flight of Habib confirms other reports of disillusion among the Alawites, who fear Assad's hard line risks sectarian reprisals that could destroy their community.
 
“His defection will rattle the Alawite community,” another military defector said. “It will be seen as another man jumping off a sinking boat, indicating the coming fall of the regime.”
 
Many Alawites, however, seem willing to fight for Assad, fearing that his removal will be disastrous for them.
 
An offshoot of the Shi'ite Islam practiced in Iran, Assad's main sponsor, Alawites make up about an eighth or so of Syria's 22-million population. Many rose to prominence following the seizure of power in a military coup in 1970 by Assad's late father, Hafez al-Assad. Habib, born in 1939, was once chief of staff of the army and served as defense minister in 2009-11.
 
While many rebels are bent on removing the Assad clan and their Alawite allies from all influence in Damascus, one of the few things squabbling international powers have agreed on is a need for compromise that would give all the main parties to the war an incentive to end what has become a bloody stalemate.
 
Coopting leading Alawites to back a post-Assad transitional administration could be one element in securing agreement.
 
Habib role?
 
Some opposition sources say that Habib disagreed with the use of force against protesters at the start of the revolt, which began in March 2011, and so he was dismissed as minister that August. Apparently unwilling to publicize the rift, Assad kept Habib quietly under guard while having him appear in public at times to make a show of loyalty, those sources said.
 
Habib himself was quoted as saying that he had stepped down from the defense ministry on health grounds.
 
Labwani said he could play a part in efforts to end the war:
 
“It seems that the Americans — and to a degree the Russians — are preparing him for a post-Assad role,” he said, describing one possibility as Habib taking control of government forces and then negotiating with the rebels on a transitional government.
 
“I am all for this roadmap,” Labwani said. “Habib is the right man.”
 
Russia and the United States announced in May they would try to bring Syrian government and opposition representatives together at an international conference, but no date has been set and there is no sign it could be held in the near future.
 
Accusing Assad of using poison gas last month on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking congressional approval for limited military action that the White House says is not aimed at overthrowing the government.
 
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has long armed Assad, has said rebels might have released the toxins and warned Obama against military action without U.N. backing.

You May Like

Analysts Warn of Regional Proxy Conflict in Afghanistan

Analysts warn if Kabul’s neighbors do not start to cooperate, competing desires for influence could deteriorate into a bloody proxy war in the country More

Saudi Intelligence Chief Replaced

Bandar bin Sultan came under criticism for supporting al Qaida, prompting King Abdallah to wrest Syria operations away from him in February, handing them to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef More

Poetry Magazine editor Don Share talks what makes a good poem with VOA's David Byrd

What makes a good poem? And is poetry as viable an art form as it once was? To find out, VOA's David Byrd spoke to Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine. More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid