Washington Institute: Riad Hijab Defection Highlights Sectarian Divide
in Syrian Government
August 06, 2012
The defection of Syria's Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Riad Hijab is the
latest sign of a sectarian split in the Alawite-dominated government of
President Bashar al-Assad.
Hijab fled to Jordan on Monday, just two months after the Syrian
president appointed him to the post. In a statement released by a
spokesman, Hijab pledged his loyalty to the rebels trying to oust his
former boss, whom he accused of running a "regime of killing and
terror." The Syrian government said the prime minister had been fired.
The prime minister is the highest-level civilian official to defect
since the start of the 17-month uprising against Assad's autocratic
rule. Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, said
all senior civilian figures who have abandoned Assad in recent months
have something in common: they are members of Syria's Sunni majority.
"There's a sectarian dimension to this," he said. "[Hijab's defection]
is in keeping with that trend. Sunnis who were brought into the regime
in the 1970s are increasingly breaking off and going against the regime,
which is breaking along sectarian lines."
President Assad belongs to the Alawite Islam sect, which makes up only
about 10 percent of Syria's population. Three-quarters of Syrians are
followers of Sunni Islam, while the remainder include Christians, Druze,
Ismailis and Twelver Shi'ites.
Speaking from Beirut, Tabler said the Sunni defections have undermined
Mr. Assad because the defectors had helped him to rule over majority
Sunnis, many of whom resent the Alawite control of the country.
Tabler said Assad's choice of Hijab as prime minister reflects another
weakness. "Obviously, Assad doesn't know very much about the loyalties
of Sunnis who have worked in his government for decades," he said.
The prime minister's position was largely symbolic, with most authority
concentrated in the president's hands. The former prime minister was not
part of Syria's powerful security apparatus dominated by Mr. Assad's
family and Alawite supporters who have stood by the president.
Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, said Mr. Assad also has been able to keep other
Sunnis in senior government posts.
"You're going to see the Assad regime continue to try to populate some
of these positions with minority groups like Orthodox Christians, but
also critically with the Sunni community so that [the regime] maintains
at least the impression if not the illusion of cross-confessional
representation within the Cabinet," said Nerguizian.
Assad moved swiftly to replace Mr. Hijab, appointing another Sunni, Omar
Ibrahim Ghalawanji, as caretaker prime minister. Ghalawanji was born in
Tartus and served as a city councilman in Latakia - two coastal regions
with significant Alawite communities loyal to Assad. Prior to
Ghalawanji's new appointment, he served as a minister for local
by phone in Beirut, Nerguizian said the Syrian president's actions show
that he has developed an ability to survive internal crises. "As far
back as March of last year, the Assad regime has learned and implemented
all of the 'best lessons' of authoritarianism, in terms of how to
repress, how to divide, and how to weaken opponents," he said.
Nerguizian said the
Sunni defections also have hardened the position of Assad's Alawite
generals, making them more concerned about survival than anything else.
"I would not be surprised if the Assad regime looked at [Hijab's
defection] and dismissed it outright, given the fact that individuals
like him will not be viewed necessarily as life threatening."
Syria's information minister reacted defiantly to the news. Syrian state
news agency SANA quoted Omran al-Zoubi as saying "Syria is a state of
institutions and the defection of individuals, however high-ranking,
will not affect the government."