Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s former defense minister has reportedly defected to Turkey, marking one of the most high-level defections from the Assad government since civil war broke out two years ago. What’s more, he may be in talks to lead a coalition government once the war ends.
General Ali Habib was appointed defense minister in 2009. He stepped down in 2011, ostensibly due to health reasons; however, opposition sources say the real reason for Habib’s resignation was that he disagreed with the Assad government’s violent crackdown on protesters, which began several months before his resignation. Assad reportedly kept Habib under close guard after he resigned and forced him to appear at public events in order to project loyalty within the regime.
Syrian state media reported yesterday that Habib was at home, but multiple sources tell Reuters that he successfully snuck across the Turkish border Tuesday night with the help of Western intelligence, and is now in Istanbul.
There have been a lot of defections from the Syrian government in the last two years; however, Habib’s is notable for two reasons. First of all, he’s one of the highest-level members of the Assad administration to defect. More importantly, while most other defectors have been Sunni Muslims, Habib is an Alawite—just like Assad.
This is significant given the demographics of Syria and the contours of the civil war. The country is majority Sunni; Alawites, who belong to an offshoot of the Shi’ite branch of Islam, only make up one-eighth of the population, yet members of the sect have ruled the country ever since the Assad family seized power in 1970. As the rebel groups are predominantly Sunni, a persistent fear throughout the conflict has been that if the Assad government falls, there will be massive retaliatory violence against Alawites in the country.
It’s been suggested, however, that this can be prevented if Alawites hold some prominent positions in Syria’s interim government if and when Assad is driven from power. Kamal al-Labwani, a Syrian dissident living in Paris, thinks Habib might be the guy for the job, and says that the U.S. and Russia are grooming him for it.
"It seems that the Americans - and to a degree the Russians - are preparing him for a post-Assad role," Labwani said. “I am all for this roadmap.”
In addition, Habib’s defection could entice other Alawite’s from Assad’s cabinet to follow suit, which would both weaken the Assad regime and, in theory, provide more candidates for a post-war coalition government.
It may be a while before Habib’s defection is confirmed, but if it’s true, he could provide a glimmer of hope for peace in a post-Assad Syria.