Syria's Top Commander Switches His Loyalty to Join Rebels
As a bold encouragement to the ongoing Syrian uprisings against its President, Basher al-Assad, the hitherto trusted head of Syria's military police has defected from the army and has declared his allegiance with the rebels. Major General Abdelaziz Jassim al-Shalal confirmed his defection in a video broadcast on al-Arabiya TV late on the previous Tuesday, saying he was joining "the people's revolution." Although the defection came as a shock to the Syrian government, a delegation of Syrian officials headed to Moscow the next day to discuss proposals for ending the conflict following talks with U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Damascus this week. The envoy has been camping in Syria for a week of talks with government officials and some dissidents but has so far said nothing about any new proposals or developments.
Earlier this month, Mr. Brahimi held important meetings including the government, Russia -- Syria's main arms supplier and an Assad ally -- and the U.S., which has thrown its weight behind the opposition. While Russia and the U.S. desired a political settlement, neither changed its tough stand regarding the future of President Assad. Brahimi's previous proposals focused on a transitional government which left open Assad's future role, something which became a sticking point among the government, the opposition, and foreign powers backing different sides.
The latest moves emerged as a video alleged fierce shelling by the Syrian government in the northern province of Raqqa, killing about 20 people, including at least eight children. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights published a video showing rows of the bloodstained bodies laid out on blankets. The sound of crying relatives could be heard in the background. It was unclear when the attack in the village of Al Qahtania happened.
Against this backdrop, some unconfirmed sources said that Major-General Shalal had fled to Turkey, a prominent NATO country in the region having serious differences with Syria. When Shalal switched his loyalties is not clear; however, Shalal is one of the most senior military-police officers, and he held a top post at the time of his defection. In his statement, he said the army had been "derailed from its basic mission of protecting the people and ... become a gang for killing and destruction." Further, he repeatedly lamented that "[t]he army has destroyed cities and villages and has committed massacres against an unarmed population that took to the streets to demand freedom" and accused the military of "destroying cities and villages and committing massacres against our innocent people who came out to demand freedom."
Syrian security sources, meanwhile, made haste to confirm Shalal's defection as his forthcoming retirement -- probably to dilute the import of the action. "Shalal did defect but he was due to retire in a month and he only defected to play hero," the source said.
Meanwhile, more than 44,000 Syrians have died so far in the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule, a conflict that began with peaceful protests and which has descended into civil war.
Obviously, the defection will be a heavy blow to morale for Assad's forces, which are hitting back with full force at a string of rebel advances across the country. It follows the defections of dozens of other generals since Syria's crisis began in March 2011. Earlier, in July of this year, Brigadier General Manaf Tlass was the first member of Assad's inner circle to break ranks and join the opposition. Thousands of Syrian soldiers have already defected over the past 21 months, and many of them are now fighting against government forces. Many have cited attacks on civilians as the reason behind their switch.
Despite these heinous killings of innocent civilians and consequent defection by senior officers, the Syrian officials were upbeat after talks with the U.N.-Arab League envoy, who met the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moualem, on Tuesday -- and Assad himself the day before, as a Lebanese official close to Assad's government had confirmed. "There is a new mood now, and something good is happening," the official said. But despite all these developments, the ongoing violent excesses by the Syrian forces do not bode well for the future of President Assad himself, as he has already lost the faith of his countrymen, to say nothing of his personal credit vis-à-vis most of the world's leaders.
Indeed, Syria is fast moving toward the point of no return, endangering the peace and security of not only its own, but also the entire middle-east region. The widespread popular aversion to Assad's regime, and the consequent instability in the country, will, in all probability, invite extremists and fundamentalist groups to enter into the fray.