Syria's prime minister defects: Is Assad's regime crumbling?

Assad's newly appointed premier has reportedly joined the opposition, the latest blow to the strongman's beleaguered government

Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab pictured Feb. 15, 2011
(Image credit: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)

On Monday, Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab reportedly escaped to Jordan, becoming the most senior figure yet to join a stream of military and civilian officials defecting from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "I am defecting from this regime, which is a murderous and terrorist regime," Hijab announced in a statement delivered by his purported spokesman. "I join the ranks of this dignified revolution." (Meanwhile, the state news agency reported that Assad had "fired" Hijab.) Hijab, who may have been joined by other government ministers in his flight to Jordan, is a Sunni who was named premier only two months ago, part of Assad's longtime strategy of giving members of Syria's Sunni majority prominent government positions even as his Alawite minority retains its hold on power. The Obama administration says Hijab's defection "only reinforces that the Assad regime is crumbling from within and that the Syrian people believe that Assad's days are numbered." Is Assad on his way out?

Yes. Assad's facade of legitimacy is gone: "Assad has faced setback after setback," and "the sense of duress surrounding the regime this time around seems especially pronounced," says Mike Giglio at The Daily Beast. Hijab's appointment was a "move to shore up the regime's faltering legitimacy" after parliamentary elections in May that were largely boycotted by the Sunni opposition. With Hijab gone, Assad cannot claim to have even the slightest Sunni support, and he is "running out of reliable options when he looks for faces to fill his regime's ever-emptying seats."

"Syria's prime minister defects to rebels"

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Assad's own ministers believe he will fall: It's clear that Hijab and other defectors believe Assad "is bound to be overthrown," says David Blair at Britain's The Telegraph. Hijab "concluded the ship is sinking," and "many of his former colleagues will be asking themselves whether they should also jump." And even if other officials are too scared to join Hijab, "the most devastating consequence of high-level defections is the poisonous atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust they leave behind." Either way, Hijab's desertion "amounts to another dent in the edifice of an otherwise implacable regime."

"Riyad Hijab: Syrian prime minister's defection dents edifice of Syria's regime"

But Hijab was just a figurehead: Hijab's defection certainly "undermines the regime's ability to convey the impression that everything is under control," says Ian Black at Britain's The Guardian. But Hijab did not hold a "position of enormous importance," and his decision to flee won't change the underlying power dynamics of Assad's regime. "Real power remains with Assad and the coterie of security chiefs and relatives who surround him." It will take more than the defection of a puppet prime minister to bring Assad down.

"Syria's prime minister confirms defection to 'join revolution of freedom'"

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