Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab announced he was joining the rebels yesterday after slipping across the border into Jordan during the night in the highest-ranking defection of the uprising in the country.
Hijab was one of the leading Sunni Muslims in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite-dominated regime.
He accused his former master of carrying out a “genocide” against his own people, but said four decades of al-Assad family rule were collapsing.
“I announce my defection today [Monday] from the regime of killing and terror, and I join the ranks of the revolt,” Hijab said in statement read by his spokesman, Mohammed al-Otri, on the al-Jazeera news channel from Amman. “Syria is passing through the most difficult war crimes, genocide and barbaric killings, and massacres against unarmed citizens.”
Hijab’s home province of Deir Ezzor in the northeast has been one of the key battlegrounds of the conflict and it has seen a mounting death toll from operations by the army in recent weeks.
Otri said the prime minister’s defection took “months” to organize and “rebels inside the country have secured this honorable exit for him.”
“He put his life on the line for this revolt ... to tell the world that we were forced to be with this regime and the sword was at our necks,” the spokesman said. “Our information is confirmed through Riad Hijab that the Syrian regime is collapsing and will definitely fall.”
Otri said the prime minster was in a “safe haven” with his family and “will soon appear and talk.”
The Syrian opposition in Jordan said that Otri and his family had slipped over the border during the night accompanied by two government ministers and three army officers.
“The Free Syrian Army helped all of them cross the border. They are now in a safe place inside the kingdom. Several other army officers defected and arrived in Jordan last night,” Syrian National Council (SNC) member Khalid Zein al-Abedin said.
Another opposition member in Jordan said: “The opposition and the Free Syrian Army are coordinating now to help more army officers and officials defect to Jordan in the coming few days.”
The opposition SNC hailed a new blow to al-Assad, who has already seen no fewer than 31 of his generals cross into Turkey to join the rebellion and a growing number of his ambassadors break ranks.
“This defection shows that the regime is disintegrating. It is the beginning of the end,” SNC leader Abdel Basset Sayda said by telephone.
In a statement, the SNC renewed its call to officials still loyal to al-Assad’s regime to defect.
“There are no more excuses to stay on board the criminal regime’s ship,” it said. “It is time to choose between loyalty to Syria and its people, or to a murderous, terrorist gang, whose hour of reckoning and punishment is nigh.”
In Damascus, state television put out a terse report announcing that Hijab had been dismissed. It said Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Local Government Minister Omar Ghalawanji had been appointed caretaker prime minister.