BEIRUT – Syria’s prime minister reportedly defected Monday, a stunning blow to a government already reeling from severe security breaches, a war-ravaged economy, international isolation and pitched battles throughout much of the country.
Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab was in Jordan with his family, according to media reports.
“I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime, and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution,” Hijab said in a statement read by his spokesman, Muhammed el-Etri, according to Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite network. “I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution.”
Syria’s official media issued a terse statement saying Hijab had been “dismissed” from his post under President Bashar Assad and replaced by a caretaker premier.
Hijab’s departure, combined with earlier defections and recent audacious strikes by armed rebels, illustrates what appears to be growing lack of confidence within the ruling elite that Assad can survive a rebellion that is now in its 17th month.
The development “only reinforces that the Assad regime is crumbling from within,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “The Syrian people believe that Assad’s days are numbered.”
A spokesman for Hijab said the former prime minister had been working on leaving Syria “for months.” He apparently had already made up his mind to leave the government when Assad named him prime minister in June.
Hijab’s apparent act of defiance continues a trend of abandonment by high-ranking Sunni Muslims who have served under Assad, a member of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Last month, those abandoning Assad included a pair of prominent Sunni officials – Nawaf Fares, Syria’s former ambassador to Iraq, and Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, son of a former defense minister. Dozens of high-ranking Sunni officers, including many generals, have also defected.