Syrian general joins rebels
Interior minister, fearing arrest, leaves Beirut hospital early
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.