Defection of stalwart PM deals blow to Assad

AMMAN Mon Aug 6, 2012 2:30pm EDT

Riyad Hijab is seen in al-Qunatara in this February 15, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri/Files

Riyad Hijab is seen in al-Qunatara in this February 15, 2011 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri/Files

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AMMAN (Reuters) - As a pillar of Syria's repressive system, Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab was well placed to understand that the ruling elite he represented for the last quarter of a century may not survive the popular uprising against Assad family rule.

The defection of Hijab, announced by his spokesman on Monday, could bring with it support for the rebel cause from his fellow tribesmen in Syria's desert east.

But it may do little to change the reality on the ground as President Bashar al-Assad pursues a relentless military campaign to crush the 17-month-old, Sunni Muslim-led uprising which has become an armed revolt.

Hijab's background as a staunch member of the ruling Baath Party, dour public demeanor, reputation for toughness and senior role in a system riddled with corruption all militate against him winning backing among rebels and opponents of Assad.

"I don't think he has the broad appeal or charisma to represent a viable figurehead (for the opposition)," said Julien Barnes-Dacey, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"He represents old school Baathism which won't appeal to the invigorated youth that drives the revolution forward. He won't cut it with them."

Still, his abandonment of Assad provides a powerful morale boost to the opposition, long used to seeing officials submit totally to the will of the Assads.

"He saw the boat sinking, and he got out," said opposition activist Abu Taif Ziad, who like Hijab is from Deir al-Zor, a tribal Sunni province on the border with Iraq that is among Syria's poorest regions, despite producing much of its oil.

"Hijab is not a popular man, and everyone in Deir al-Zor recalls his brutality, and the corruption he oversaw. But even a trusted figurehead like him defected. It is a big blow for the regime," he adds.

Ziad pointed to Hijab's tenure as the system's enforcer in Deir al-Zor, when he served as head of the student union and later as Baath Party chief, before moving on to governorships and ministerial positions.

Ziad said that rumors had been rife that Hijab would defect after his friend Nawaf al-Fares, Syria's ambassador to Iraq and a fellow tribal figure from Deir al-Zor, fled his post last month.

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Hijab, born in 1964, was appointed prime minister in June after a parliamentary election which authorities said showed they were was implementing political reform demanded by protesters. The opposition said the election was meaningless in the midst of bloodshed which has killed 18,000 people.

Unlike previous premiers who were from the province of Aleppo or Damascus, Hijab hails from the country's Sunni desert fringes, where Assad's crackdown had been milder than elsewhere.

But Hijab watched helplessly as Assad turned his tanks and helicopters against Deir al-Zor in recent weeks, pummeling the provincial capital with ferocious aerial and ground bombardment.

The position of prime minister is largely powerless in Syria, with all control in the hands of Assad, his family and the security chiefs, mainly from Assad's Alawite minority sect.

Veteran Syrian opposition activist Fawaz Tello said the defection of a hardline Baathist like Hijab shows "the degree of sectarian polarization inside the regime."

"Assad has been relying more and more on his Alawite sect to crack down on the uprising to a degree that is alienating his most loyal Sunni cohorts," Tello added.

Opposition sources said that the appointment of Hijab as prime minister in June had helped placate his tribe, the Sukhon, who inhabit the region between Deir al-Zor and the province of Homs, hotbed of the Sunni revolt.

They said the most immediate effect of Hijab's defection may be that the Sukhon may provide a supply line for rebels to Homs, but it will take more to remove Assad.

"Short of a member of the family itself being killed or leaving, defections by themselves will not bring the downfall of the regime," Tello said.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

(This story was refiled to fix typographical error in the fourth paragraph)

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