Ottawa Citizen

Syr­ian gen­eral joins rebels

In­te­rior min­is­ter, fear­ing ar­rest, leaves Beirut hospi­tal early

- BASSEM MROUE Military · Crime · Terrorism · European Politics · Middle East News · Latin America News · Politics · Middle East Politics · Warfare and Conflicts · Beirut · Syria · Idlib · Turkey · Rafik Hariri · Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport · Lebanon · Tripoli · Palestinian Authority · Palestinian Territory · Palestinian National Authority · West Bank · Yasser Arafat · Ar Raqqah · United Nations · Arab League · Moscow · Russia · Russian Empire · Bashar al-Assad · Jassem · Syrian Army · Damascus · Syrian Armed Forces · Lakhdar Brahimi

BEIRUT • Syria’s wounded in­te­rior min­is­ter cut short his treat­ment at a Beirut hospi­tal Wed­nes­day and re­turned home for fear of be­ing ar­rested by Le­banese au­thor­i­ties, while Syria’s chief of mil­i­tary po­lice de­fected to the op­po­si­tion.

The twin de­vel­op­ments re­flected the deep­en­ing iso­la­tion of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s government, which has also suf­fered a num­ber of set­backs on the bat­tle­field.

In the lat­est chal­lenge, rebels launched a mas­sive at­tack on a mil­i­tary base in the north­ern province of Idlib af­ter lay­ing siege to it for weeks.

The de­fec­tor, Maj. Gen. Ab­dul-Aziz Jassem al-Shal­lal, be­comes one of the most se­nior mem­bers of As­sad’s regime to join the op­po­si­tion dur­ing the 21-month-old re­volt against his au­thor­i­tar­ian rule.

Shal­lal ap­peared in a video aired on Arab TV late Tues­day say­ing that he was cast­ing his lot with “the peo­ple’s rev­o­lu­tion.”

Dozens of gen­er­als have de­fected since the Syr­ian upris­ing be­gan in March 2011, but the de­ci­sion by Shal­lal, the leader of the se­cu­rity branch charged with pun­ish­ing dis­ci­plinary fail­ures within the Syr­ian army, is par­tic­u­larly em­bar­rass­ing for the Syr­ian pres­i­dent.

“The army has de­vi­ated from its es­sen­tial mis­sion, which is to pro­tect the coun­try, and it has mor­phed into mur­der­ous, de­struc­tive gangs,” Shal­lal said. He added that “the de­struc­tion of cities and vil­lages, and the com­mis­sion of mas­sacres against our peo­ple, de­fence­less civil­ians who took to the streets call­ing for free­dom,” had prompted him to de­fect.

It was un­clear where Shal­lal was on Wed­nes­day. Some op­po­si­tion sources said he was smug­gled across the bor­der into Turkey in a night­time op­er­a­tion.

A Syr­ian se­cu­rity source con­firmed the de­fec­tion, but played down its sig­nif­i­cance.

“Shal­lal did de­fect, but he was due to re­tire in a month and he only de­fected to play hero,” the source said.

Mean­while, In­te­rior Min­is­ter Mo­hammed al-Shaar, who was wounded in a sui­cide bomb­ing Dec. 12 in Da­m­as­cus and was brought to Beirut for treat­ment a week ago, left the hospi­tal early and flew home to Da­m­as­cus on a pri­vate jet, of­fi­cials at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri In­ter­na­tional Air­port said.

A top Le­banese se­cu­rity of­fi­cial told The As­so­ci­ated Press that Shaar was rushed out of Le­banon af­ter au­thor­i­ties there re­ceived in­for­ma­tion that in­ter­na­tional ar­rest war­rants could be is­sued against him be­cause of his role in the deadly crack­down against pro­test­ers in Syria.

Over the past week, some Le­banese of­fi­cials and in­di­vid­u­als had also called for Shaar’s ar­rest for his role in a bloody 1986 as­sault in the Le­banese city of Tripoli.

In the 1980s, Shaar was a top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial in north­ern Le­banon when Syr­ian troops stormed Tripoli and crushed a Sunni Mus­lim group that sup­ported Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion chief Yasser Arafat. Hun­dreds of peo­ple were killed in the bat­tles, and since then, many in north­ern Le­banon have re­ferred to Shaar as “the butcher of Tripoli.”

It was a tes­ta­ment to just how in­ter­na­tion­ally iso­lated As­sad’s regime has be­come that even in Le­banon, a coun­try Syria con­trolled for decades, Syr­ian government of­fi­cials can­not feel at ease.

“Le­banese of­fi­cials con­tacted Syr­ian au­thor­i­ties, and that sped up his de­par­ture,” said the se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, adding that a Le­banese med­i­cal team is ex­pected to go to Da­m­as­cus to con­tinue Shaar’s treat­ment there. “If such ar­rest war­rants are is­sued, Le­banese ju­di­cial au­thor­i­ties will have to ar­rest him, and this could be an em­bar­rass­ment for the coun­try.”

Le­banon and Syria have a long and bit­ter his­tory.

Syr­ian forces moved into Le­banon in 1976 as peace­keep­ers af­ter the coun­try was swept into a civil war be­tween Chris­tian and Mus­lim mili­tias. For nearly 30 years that fol­lowed, Le­banon lived un­der Syr­ian mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal dom­i­na­tion. Da­m­as­cus was even­tu­ally forced to with­draw its troops but has main­tained con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence in Le­banon.

The de­fec­tion of Syria’s mil­i­tary po­lice chief came as mil­i­tary pres­sure builds on the regime, with government bases fall­ing to rebel as­sault near Da­m­as­cus and else­where across the coun­try.

On Wed­nes­day, the Bri­tain­based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said government shelling in the north­east­ern province of Raqqa killed at least 20 peo­ple, in­clud­ing eight chil­dren and three women. Also, ac­tivists said rebels were at­tack­ing the Wadi Deif mil­i­tary base in the north­ern province of Idlib. The base, which is near the strate­gic town of Maaret al- Nu­man, has been un­der siege for weeks.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League spe­cial en­voy to Syria, has spent much of Christ­mas week pur­su­ing a ne­go­ti­ated end to the con­flict, with con­flict­ing re­ports about whether he is mak­ing progress. On Mon­day he met As­sad in Da­m­as­cus, and on Tues­day he met Walid Moualem, the For­eign Min­is­ter, and mem­bers of Syria’s of­fi­cially sanc­tioned op­po­si­tion. On Satur­day he will hold talks in Moscow — Rus­sia be­ing a pro­tec­tor of the regime and one of the few coun­tries with in­flu­ence in the Syr­ian cap­i­tal.

Be­fore Brahimi’s ar­rival, Faisal Mak­dad, Syria’s deputy for­eign min­is­ter, flew to Moscow Wed­nes­day, ap­par­ently to dis­cuss Brahimi’s lat­est pro­pos­als for a peace­ful tran­si­tion to democ­racy. A Le­banese of­fi­cial close to the regime told Reuters that Syr­ian of­fi­cials were up­beat af­ter their talks with Brahimi, and that Mr. Mak­dad had been sent to seek Rus­sian ad­vice on a pos­si­ble agree­ment. “There is a new mood now and some­thing good is hap­pen­ing,” the of­fi­cial said, though he gave no de­tails.

There has been spec­u­la­tion Brahimi might sug­gest that As­sad be al­lowed to re­main in of­fice dur­ing a tran­si­tional pe­riod, al­beit stripped of all real pow­ers, but op­po­si­tion lead­ers flatly re­ject that idea.

 ?? THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS/AL ARA­BIYA VIA AP VIDEO ?? Syr­ian Maj. Gen. Ab­dul-Aziz Jassem al-Shal­lal, seen dur­ing a video broad­cast on Al Ara­biya TV late Tues­day, said he is join­ing ‘the peo­ple’s rev­o­lu­tion.’ He is one of the most se­nior of­fi­cers to switch sides since the upris­ing be­gan in March 2011.
THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS/AL ARA­BIYA VIA AP VIDEO Syr­ian Maj. Gen. Ab­dul-Aziz Jassem al-Shal­lal, seen dur­ing a video broad­cast on Al Ara­biya TV late Tues­day, said he is join­ing ‘the peo­ple’s rev­o­lu­tion.’ He is one of the most se­nior of­fi­cers to switch sides since the upris­ing be­gan in March 2011.

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