FAITHFUL SOLDIER DEFECTS?: Syrian opposition circles are abuzz Thursday with rumors that former Defense Minister Ali Habib Mahmud has fled to Turkey and defected to the opposition. Once a member of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, Colonel General Habib left his post as Defense Minister in 2011 amidst rumors that he had fallen out of favor with the Syrian President and has been living quietly in Syria ever since.
Syrian National Coalition member Kamal a-Labwani, who broke news of Habib’s escape to Turkey, told a-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper that Habib had fled with the help of Western intelligence agencies.
“Habib’s flight [from Syria] does not mean that he has joined the opposition,” a-Labwani said. “Most likely, the western countries need him before the expected military strike against the regime as they consider him to be a mine of information.”
An anonymous Free Syrian Army officer confirmed that the United States had coordinated Habib’s flight to Turkey, Reuters reported.
Pro-regime Syria News Channel denies the rumored defection and insists that Habib is still at home in Syria. The Syrian Foreign Ministry has refused to comment.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu similarly declined to confirm or deny that Habib was in Turkey.
As one of only a handful of Colonel Generals in Syrian history, Habib would be the highest ranking military official to defect from the regime.
In his only known television appearance, Habib reads from a prepared statement on Syrian state television shortly after resigning as Defense Minister in August 2011, addressing rumors that President Assad had removed him over questions about his loyalty as the revolution was beginning to gain steam.
“The media transmitted some rumors in their provocative campaign against our country about why I [had stepped down from my position],” the General said. “I assure you that these stories are far different from the reality, and that their goal is to interfere with Syria and its National Army.”
“I assure you that I will be a faithful soldier for the Syrian Arab Army,” Habib added, offering the alternate explanation of deteriorating health as the reason for his abrupt departure.
Habib is a member of both the Baath Party and Assad’s Alawite sect. His alleged defection would make him one of the most prominent Alawites to join the ranks of the opposition.
Prior to being appointed Defense Minister in 2009, Habib served as Chief of Staff of the Syrian Army for five years.
The European Union imposed sanctions against Gen. Habib in 2011, citing the then Defense Minister’s role in directing the “conduct and operations of Syrian Armed Forces involved in repression and violence against the civilian population.”