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Middle East

Syria crisis: General deserts Damascus and flees to Turkey

If confirmed, Ali Habib would be the highest ranking figure from the minority Alawite sect to defect since the uprising began

A former Syrian defence minister who was once a top aide of President Bashar al-Assad has reportedly defected from the government side, fleeing across the border to Turkey in the dead of night.

If his defection is confirmed, General Ali Habib would be the highest ranking figure from the minority Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs, to defect since the uprising began two and a half years ago.

“Ali Habib has managed to escape from the grip of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition. I was told this by a Western diplomatic official,” Kamal al-Labwani, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition said from Paris. Syrian state television denied that Gen Habib had left Syria and said he was still at his home. The general, who was Defence Minister from 2009 to August 2011, stepped down because of health reasons, according to the regime.

Rumours circulated that he was dismissed for opposing the killing of peaceful protesters, after which he pledged allegiance to the regime on state television. Mr Labwani said Gen Habib was smuggled out of Syria with the help of a Western country.

“He will be a top source of information. Habib has had a long military career. He has been effectively under house arrest since he defied Assad and opposed killing protesters,” Mr Labwani said.

Syrian opposition members have been hoping that the threat of US military strikes would lead to mass defections. “We’re getting a lot of calls from officers who want to defect,” said Adib Shishakly, who represents the Syrian Coalition to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

He says eight other generals, including an Alawite, are in the process of defecting. Their primary concern is for their families; in the past those left behind have been incarcerated or killed. 

Damascus remained defiant in the face of the defection and said it was mobilising its allies against potential military strikes. Faisal Mokdad, the Deputy Prime Minister, said: “The Syrian government will not change position even if there is World War Three. No Syrian can sacrifice the independence of his country,“ he told the AFP press agency.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal he threatened to hit not just Israel, but Turkey and Jordan too if they took part in the strikes.