For one top Syrian defector, a path less traveled

The Wall Street Journal reports: On his final day at Syria’s oil ministry in Damascus, Abdo Husameddin tried to avoid raising suspicions: He stayed to sign off on some paperwork, he said, chatted with the oil minister and left at 5 p.m.

That March evening, the deputy oil minister started a three-day covert journey to Turkey, hosted at safehouses across the country and guarded by fighters opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. A year into the country’s uprising, he became the highest-ranking official to defect from the Syrian government.

In the weeks that followed, all of Mr. Husameddin’s assets and bank accounts in Syria were frozen, he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Months later, Turkish security agents still sometimes escort him around his new host country, warning him that even abroad, he faces a threat from Syrian intelligence agencies, he said.

Syria’s conflict has left up to 15,000 people dead, and has in recent months devolved into what some international diplomats have characterized as a civil war. Soldiers have defected at an increasing pace, including a Syrian air force pilot who flew his jet to Jordan last week. The government typically doesn’t comment on defections but called the air-force pilot who defected to Jordan a “traitor.”

On Thursday, Syrian media said a brigadier general from a family with close ties to President Assad had fled to Turkey in what would be the conflict’s highest-level military defection.

But far fewer of the regime’s high civilian officials have abandoned the regime. That fact has complicated efforts by the Syrian opposition to persuade world powers that it has legitimate leaders in line should President Assad fall. By contrast, in Libya’s recent conflict, a procession of high-profile ministry and diplomatic defectors provided the foundation of the opposition to Moammar Gadhafi and later of Libya’s transitional government.

President Assad’s top security, ministry and military officials have proven fiercely loyal, and many come from the president’s Alawite minority. But the 1.2 million civil servants in Syria’s state institutions are, like broader society, polarized between pro- and anti-regime Syrians, according to Mr. Husameddin and current and former Syrian officials who corroborated much of his account of the dynamics at the country’s state offices.

Mr. Husameddin attributes the lack of high-level defections largely to stepped-up security measures, a characterization echoed by other, lower-level state employees who have turned against the Assad regime. Safe passage out of the country is becoming increasingly tricky, Mr. Husameddin said, and there are few incentives to risk uprooting families and livelihoods to join a fragmented opposition.

Many state employees in Syria have turned against the regime but are staying in their jobs, he added, saying they are “defecting silently.”

“When the regime falls, we need these people,” he said. “We don’t want the state to collapse. In fact, they will be beneficial in the next phase.”

Regime officials say the lack of high-profile civilian defections reflects the loyalty of government workers and their determination to defeat what they see as a terrorist insurgency. The government hasn’t commented on Mr. Husameddin’s defection. The oil ministry didn’t return requests to comment.

Regional powers have even raised the prospect of offering tens of millions of dollars to woo potential defectors from government, said two people familiar with such offers. “A lot of money is being paid to ply people away,” said one of these people. “But there’s also the thinking that some people should be kept in place for the day after.” [Continue reading…]

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