There is little in Riad Hijab’s past that hints at personal or moral courage. He was a long-time member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party, serving it as minister of agriculture and before that as governor of two provinces. In official photographs he glares at the camera wearing a sober suit and sporting the same toothbrush moustache as Assad: a company man. Which may be why Assad appointed him prime minster in June. He needed a safe pair of hands as the rebellion against his rule raged ever hotter.
And yet this month Hijab risked his life and those of more than 30 family members when he defected to the opposition, fleeing the country for Jordan in a daring and complex operation that struck a blow against the Assad regime and emboldened Syria’s opposition after 17 months of war.
In his first public appearance since defecting, Hijab said the Syrian government is collapsing and urged the army to join the revolution. He said he had no desire to hold political office. “In a free Syria, which I will see coming soon, I consider myself as a soldier in the path of righteousness.”
Hijab is the highest-ranking politician to defect. In July, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a former commander of an elite Republican Guard unit and longtime ally of Assad, also defected, signalling deep fissures even within the upper ranks of Syria’s armed forces.
But Hijab’s defection is different, says David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Operationally, it will have little impact on the course of the war and the repression of political opponents, which is carried out by military, security and intelligence forces. But Hijab’s defection will shake another pillar of support for the Assad regime: the Sunni civilian elite.
Bashar al-Assad and many of the most powerful men in his regime are Alawites, members of an offshoot sect of Shia Islam who make up about 10 per cent of Syria’s population. Though Sunni Muslims form the majority of the opposition, Assad has traditionally been able to count on the loyalty of powerful Sunnis, especially businessmen.
“Even until pretty recently, this business elite has been seen to be on the fence. They had been totally co-opted into this system, corrupt as it was,” says Schenker. “If Hijab leaves, this will likely encourage other Sunni elites to reconsider their support for the al-Assad regime.”
For Syrians who have already thrown themselves behind the uprising, Hijab’s defection is another sign that Assad’s end draws near. “It’s one more step that shows we are on the way to break this regime and take power soon in Damascus,” says Basel Alchikh-Sulaiman, an opposition activist who left Syria in 2005 and is now based in Toronto.
Alchikh-Sulaiman says Syrians opposed to Assad will excuse Hijab’s long association with the dictator’s regime. “He might have done some mistakes before, but right now we appreciate his sacrifice. Personally I’m very proud of the prime minister. I think he’s done the best thing in his life.”