BEIRUT – Syria’s wounded interior minister cut short his treatment at a Beirut hospital Wednesday and returned home for fear of being arrested by Lebanese authorities, while Syria’s chief of military police defected to the opposition, becoming one of the highest-ranking officers to switch sides.
The twin developments reflected the deepening isolation of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, which has suffered a number of setbacks on the battlefield as well.
In the latest challenge, rebels launched a massive attack on a military base in the northern province of Idlib after laying siege to it for weeks.
The defector, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, becomes one of the most senior members of Assad’s regime to join the opposition during the 21-month-old revolt against his authoritarian rule.
Al-Shallal appeared in a video aired on Arab TV late Tuesday saying that he was casting his lot with “the people’s revolution.”
He said the military “has become a gang for killing and destruction,” and he accused it of “destroying cities and villages and committing massacres against our innocent people who came out to demand freedom.”
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar, who was wounded in a suicide bombing Dec. 12 in Damascus and was brought to Beirut for treatment a week ago, left the hospital early and flew home to Damascus on a private jet, officials at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport said.
A top Lebanese security official told the Associated Press that al-Shaar was rushed out of Lebanon after authorities there received information that international arrest warrants could be issued against him because of his role in the deadly crackdown against protesters in Syria.
Over the past week, some Lebanese officials and individuals had also called for al-Shaar’s arrest for his role in a bloody 1986 assault in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.
In the 1980s, al-Shaar was a top intelligence official in northern Lebanon when Syrian troops stormed Tripoli and crushed a Sunni Muslim group that supported Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat. Hundreds of people were killed in the battles, and since then, many in northern Lebanon have referred to al-Shaar as “the butcher of Tripoli.”
It was a testament to just how internationally isolated Assad’s regime has become that even in Lebanon, a country Syria controlled for decades, Syrian government officials cannot feel at ease.