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Syria's Prime Minister Riad Hijab Flees To Jordan

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A November 24, 2008, photo shows Syrian Agriculture Minister Riad Hijab in Quneitra. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
A November 24, 2008, photo shows Syrian Agriculture Minister Riad Hijab in Quneitra. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Syria's prime minister began planning his break from the regime two months ago when Bashar Assad offered him the post and an ultimatum: Take the job or die.

The full scope of Riad Hijab's carefully executed flight to the rebel side – described by an aide who escaped with him to Jordan – reverberated Monday through Syria's leadership. Hijab became the highest-ranking government official to defect, emboldening the opposition and raising fresh questions about the regime's ability to survive the civil war.

Although Assad has been hit by a string of embarrassing defections of military and political figures, they have yet to cause visible changes in the regime's abilities on the battlefield. The loss of high-profile government officials, however, suggests fissures are reaching deeper into the ruling system and could force Assad to retreat further behind a cadre of loyalists as fighting flares on several fronts.

"Every defection is another door closed for Assad and another one open for the rebels," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva. "It may not be the tipping point for the regime, but each breakaway is another crack."

Hijab and an entourage of family members were expected to head next to the Gulf state of Qatar, a key backer of the Syrian rebels, in a further sign of the regional brinksmanship and gambits over Assad's fate. Gulf states and Turkey have strongly backed the rebel forces while Assad has counted on support from a dwindling list of allies such as Iran and Russia.

Ahmad Kassim, a senior official with the rebel Free Syrian Army, initially said Hijab defected along with three other ministers, then later said two other ministers had left. However, Hijab's spokesman, Mohammad Otari, said he fled the country alone.

Hijab's defection is a humiliating blow for Assad after a string of generals and ambassadors has peeled away. Like nearly all prominent defectors so far, Hijab is a member of Syria's majority Sunnis – the Muslim sect which forms the bedrock of the more than 17-month uprising.

His break suggests that elements of the Sunni elite – long a pillar of Assad's rule – could be growing uneasy with the relentless bloodshed and the hardline policies of Assad's minority Alawite community, which dominates the regime's inner circle. The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said "the Assad regime is crumbling from within" and predicted "Assad's days are numbered." Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to arrive in Turkey later this week for meetings on Syria.

French Foreign Minister cited Hijab's break as evidence "of a regime that's losing support through its choice of armed violence" in a conflict that has claimed at least 19,000 lives. A statement from French President Francois Hollande said the country was dispatching military surgeons to the Syria-Jordan border, where more than 120,000 Syrian refugees have crossed since the conflict began.

The Syrian regime has suffered a series of setbacks over the past month that point to a loosening of its grip on the country.

Four of the president's top security aides were killed in a rebel bombing of state security headquarters in the capital Damascus on July 18, including the defense minister and Assad's brother in law. There has been a steady stream of high-level defections from diplomats to generals. And the regime has been unable to fully subdue rebel challenges in the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

Just hours before word of the defection got out, Assad suffered another blow in his attempt to portray he is in control: A bomb ripped through the third floor of the state TV building in Damascus, wounding at least three employees and displaying the ability of rebels to strike in the heart of the capital.

But power remains closely held within Assad's inner circle and even posts such as the prime minister have limited clout. Hijab's departure will not immediately undercut the regime's ability to fight rebels in places such as Aleppo, Syria's largest city, which it has pounded with gunners and warplanes.

Hijab was long a loyalist of Assad's Baath party, rising through the ranks to become agriculture minister last year. After elections in June, Hijab was picked as the new prime minister. About that time, though, his loyalties began to shift and a plan to flee began to take shape, Otari told The Associated Press in Amman, Jordan.

"The criminal Assad pressed him to become a prime minister and left him no choice but to accept the position. He had told him: `You either accept the position or get killed,'" said Otari, who told the AP that Hijab and his family planned to travel on from Amman to Qatar.

"The prime minister defected from the regime of killing, maiming and terrorism. He considers himself a soldier in the revolution," the aide said.

David Hartwell, a Mideast analyst at IHS Jane's think tank in London, said the months of reported preparation to defect opens the possibility that Hijab could have been in touch with rebels before his appointment as prime minister. He said that could "point to a serious breakdown in inner-regime security."

Syria's official SANA news agency said the Cabinet held an emergency session hours after a replacement was named for Hijab. Meanwhile, in a rebel base just near the Turkish border, fighters celebrated the news of Hijab's defection even as their forces faced withering attacks in Aleppo.

"If the people who are benefiting from the regime are defecting, then this shows that it is living its last days," a fighter who identified himself as Abu Ahmad told the AP by telephone from the northeastern Syrian town of Jarablous. "Every time our youth hear that an officer or an official defected, it boosts their morale."

George Sabra, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council, said Hijab is a symbol of the state and added that he expected his desertion to usher in a chain of others.

"He has finally discovered that this regime is an enemy of its own people and is destined to fall, and he chose to join the ranks of those who defected before him," Sabra told AP. "This will trigger a chain of other defections by Syrian senior government and security officials," he added. "The Syrian regime is drowning, and this is the clearest sign yet."

Syria's rebels have grown increasingly bold and capable in recent months. In July, the rebels and Syrian regime forces fought intense battles for a week in Damascus in what was the opposition fighters' biggest challenge so far in the capital.

In a brazen daylight attack, rebels commandeered a bus and snatched 48 Iranians just outside Damascus on Saturday. Iran said those abducted were pilgrims who were visiting a shrine about 10 miles (six kilometers) south of Damascus and were on their way to the airport to return home.

But the captors claimed in a video broadcast Sunday that one of the captives was an officer of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards and that the 48 were on a "reconnaissance mission" for Assad's close allies in Tehran.

___

Halaby reported from Amman, Jordan. AP writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Bassem Mroue in Hatay, Turkey, and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.

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lebanon Hussein Ali Omar, 60, one of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims that Syrian rebels have been holding for three months in Syria, hugs his mother, right, upon arrival at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. Syrian rebels freed Omar on Saturday in a move aimed at easing cross-border tensions after a wave of abductions of Syrian citizens in Lebanon. The Shiite pilgrims were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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France24 correspondents Matthieu Mabin and Sofia Amara report from the front lines of a rebel offensive against the Syrian army in Damascus.

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syria This image made from video and released by Shaam News Network and accessed Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, purports to show the funeral of children in Daraya, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters broke into a Damascus suburb on Thursday following two days of shelling and intense clashes as part of a widening offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to seize control of parts of the capital and surrounding areas from rebel fighters, activists said. At least 15 people were killed in the offensive on Daraya, only a few miles (kilometers) southwest of Damascus. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN via AP video)


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The AP gives more context:

Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.

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lebanon A Sunni gunman fires a gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. The latest round of fighting first erupted on Monday in northern Lebanon and at least 15 have been killed in Tripoli this week and more than 100 have been wounded in fighting that is a spillover from Syria's civil war. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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syria Syrian boy Musataf Alhafiz, 11, who fled his home with his family due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, carries his brother Saif, 9 months, while he and others take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. Thousands of Syrians who have been displaced by the country's civil war are struggling to find safe shelter while shelling and airstrikes by government forces continue. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)


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lebanon Lebanese commandos ride in an armored personnel carrier in preparation to enter the area of clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. The civil war in Syria is affecting its fragile, tiny neighbor Lebanon in countless ways and has already spilled over into sectarian street clashes, kidnappings and general government paralysis.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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