Maj. Gen. Abdelaziz Jassim al-Shalal
Dec. 26: Syria’s embattled leadership suffered a new setback today with the publicly broadcast defection of its military police chief, the highest-ranking officer to abandon President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising against him began 21 months ago.
The defector, Maj. Gen. Abdelaziz Jassim al-Shalal, announced his move in a video broadcast by Al Arabiya, saying that he had taken the step because of what he called the Syrian military’s deviation from “its fundamental mission to protect the nation and transformation into gangs of killing and destruction”.
Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab broadcaster heavily critical of the Syrian government, said Gen. Shallal had made the video yesterday somewhere on the Turkish-Syrian border, implying that he was now inside Turkey, where other Syrian military defectors have sought refuge in the conflict. Many have regrouped there to join the Free Syrian Army, the main insurgent force fighting Assad.
Reading from a prepared statement while sitting at a desk, dressed in a camouflage uniform with red epaulets, the general did not specify in his message when he had decided to defect but said that he had been “waiting for the right circumstances to do so”. He also said “there are other high-ranking officers who want to defect, but the situation is not suitable for them to declare defection”.
Gen. Shallal’s statement came as Syrian insurgents were claiming new territorial gains against Assad in the northern and central parts of the country. It also comes as a special envoy from the UN and the Arab League was visiting Damascus as part of an effort to reach a political settlement that would halt the conflict, the most violent of the Arab Spring revolutions that began in the winter of 2010-2011.
There has been speculation that the special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, presented Assad with proposals for relinquishing his authority and possibly leaving the country. But Assad, whose Alawite minority has ruled Syria for more than four decades, has consistently said he will not leave the country, even as his control over it seems to be slipping further away.
Dozens of lower-ranking Syrian military officers and hundreds of soldiers have fled Syria over the past two years, but Gen. Shallal, the head of the military police division of the Syrian Army, is the highest-ranking military defector so far. He outranked Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a boyhood friend of Assad’s, who fled last July. Gen. Tlass is now believed to be living in France.
Among civilians who have abandoned Assad, the highest-ranking defector so far has been the Prime Minister, Riyad Farid Hijab, who fled to Jordan on August 6.
In the past few weeks, unconfirmed reports also have abounded about the possible defection of Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, a smooth-talking English speaker who had numerous foreign contacts and who disappeared from public view in early December. The Lebanese television channel Al Manar, which is sympathetic to Assad, said Makdissi had been fired. The Guardian reported this week that Makdissi had fled to the US and was cooperating with American intelligence.
In Lebanon, Syria’s interior minister, Mohammed al-Shaar, who had been recovering at a Beirut hospital from wounds said to have been received in a December 12 suicide bombing attack outside his offices in Damascus, was on his way back to the Syrian capital today.