Syria’s highest-ranking civilian defector, former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, says he has ‘sacrificed’ himself for the cause—could he be ready for a more prominent opposition role? Mike Giglio reports from Istanbul.
After more than a week of intrigue, Riyad Hijab, the former Syrian prime minister, made his first public appearance on Tuesday—and he came out charging hard against his former boss, the strongman President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime he was still party to at the start of the month. “The regime is falling apart morally, materially, and economically,” he said in remarks that painted a dire picture of Assad’s grip on power.
Saying the Syrian military is “rusting,” Hijab claimed Assad now controls just 30 percent of the country's land.
Hijab’s unexpected defection caused a sensation last week: not only is he the top civilian defector, but Hijab also bolted from the regime just two months into the job. The interest surrounding his departure only intensified in the coming days, as even the country where he was residing remained a mystery. Initial reports, confirmed by Jordanian officials, were that he had fled to Jordan overnight. But Hijab was also rumored to be on his way to Qatar, and activists in Istanbul were then buzzing that he was amongst them in the Turkish capital, where the primary Syrian opposition body is based. He said Tuesday that he had spent three days hiding out in Syria during the news flurry, before escaping into Jordan with the help of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Hijab made his presence felt in Amman today, issuing a forceful condemnation against the Assad regime that echoed the tone of harsh comments relayed by his spokesman—Hijab labeled Assad’s government a “killing and terrorist regime” on his way out the door—on the day his defection was announced. He urged other members of the regime to do the same.
"Syria is full of officials and military leaders who are awaiting the right moment to join the revolt,” Hijab said. “I urge the Army to follow the example of Egypt's and Tunisia's armies. Take the side of people.”
Assad, for his part, has worked to portray a sense of business as usual in Damascus since Hijab’s departure. Assad promptly found a replacement from within the Sunni Muslim ranks—Assad, like his father before him, has long sought to include faces from the Sunni majority in his minority Alawite regime—and swore in Wael al-Halqi, the former health minister, in a ceremony last week.
Meanwhile, Assad has been pounding Aleppo, where the focus of the regime’s battle with rebel forces is now based, with fighter jets, which have rendered much of the country’s largest city and commercial center into rubble as refugees stream across Syria’s borders.
This week in Istanbul—a city now full of Syrian revolutionaries who pack its ubiquitous, multilevel coffee shops until the wee hours of the night—the talk of the town has been leadership of the Syrian opposition, or perhaps the lack of it to date. During a visit to Istanbul to discuss the U.S. and Turkish response to the crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton chose to meet not with the main Syrian opposition leaders but with ground-level activists instead. To many, her message was clear: the West is still looking for people worthy of taking charge.
Hijab, for his part, said the opposition should unify and move to establish transitional plans. It remains to be seen whether Hijab will take a prominent role in that process, and in his remarks on Tuesday Hijab said he didn’t want one. But his words had the sound of a politician who says he’s not interested in office until he decides that he is. “I have sacrificed myself in the campaign of righteousness,” he said. “I don’t want to satisfy anyone but God.”
It has been a fast ride into the international spotlight for Hijab. Just a few months ago, he was a little-known agriculture minister from the city of Der Ezzor, before Assad made him prime minister following elections largely painted as a sham intended to boost his faltering stature at home. His short time in the upper echelons of the regime could serve him well, should he end up pushing for an opposition role.
High-profile defector Manaf Tlass, for example, has been floated by some as a possible leader in transitional plans. He has been at the right hand of the Assad family since his childhood in Damascus—where he even grew up with Bashar. Tlass comes from a military background—and one in the feared Republican Guard. Such familiarity could potentially help in paving the way to reconciliation with those Syrians who still retain some support for the regime—or at least those who are fearful of what could come if it falls.
Perhaps with that in mind, since Tlass has been measured in his critiques of Assad. But that very closeness to the regime roils many members of the opposition, who use the phrase “blood on his hands” as a frequent refrain.
Hijab is a defector with a different appeal, with no reputation as a key cog in the Assad machine, as least until his background in government comes under a brighter light. And he has now made a reputation for himself as someone who is quick to express his disdain for the regime, from his speedy departure—last week, his spokesman said it had been planned since before he officially began his prime minister’s post—to his forceful condemnations today. The Assad government, Hijab said at his press conference, is the “enemy of God.”