In a major boost to the on-going Syrian uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the once-trusted head of the country's military police has defected to the rebels. Major-General Abdelaziz Jassim Al-Shalal, confirmed his defection speaking from an unknown location in a report broadcast on Al-Arabiya Television late on Tuesday. He confirmed that he was joining "the people's revolution".
Although the defection came as a shock to the regime, a delegation of Syrian officials headed to Moscow the following day to discuss proposals for ending the conflict; they had earlier had talks with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Damascus. The envoy has been in Syria for a week of talks with government officials and some dissidents, but has so far said nothing about any new proposals or developments.
Earlier this month, Brahimi held tripartite talks with Russia, Syria's main arms supplier and an Assad ally, and the United States, which has thrown its weight behind the opposition. While both sides desired a political settlement, neither changed their tough stand on the future of President Assad. Brahimi's previous proposals focused on a transitional government which left open Assad's future role, something which became a sticking point between the government, the opposition and foreign powers backing the opposing sides.
The latest moves emerged as reports from Syria's northern province of Raqqa claimed that government shelling has killed 20 people, including at least eight children. Rows of blood-stained bodies were shown laid out on blankets as relatives cried in the background. It was unclear when the attack on the village of Al-Qahtania actually happened.
Against this backdrop, some unconfirmed sources said that Major-General Al-Shalal had fled to Turkey, a prominent NATO country in the region with serious political differences with the regime in Syria. Although it is not clear when it took place, his is one of the most senior defections to-date. In his statement, he said that the army had been "derailed from its basic mission of protecting the people and… become a gang for killing and destruction". Furthermore, he lamented: "The army has destroyed cities and villages and has committed massacres against an unarmed population which took to the streets to demand freedom."
In an attempt to dilute its significance, the Syrian security sources described Al-Shalal's defection as his "forthcoming retirement"; he only switched sides "to play the hero", they claimed.
More than 44,000 Syrians have died in the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule, a conflict that began with peaceful protests but which has descended into civil war. Obviously, the defection will be a heavy blow to the morale of Assad's forces, which are hitting back with great brutality at a string of rebel advances across the country.
Al-Shalal's follows the defections of dozens of other generals since Syria's crisis began in March 2011. In July this year, Brigadier General Manaf Tlass was the first member of Assad's inner circle to break ranks and join the opposition. Thousands of ordinary Syrian soldiers have already defected and are now fighting against government forces. Many have cited attacks on civilians as the reason behind their switch of sides.
Despite the heinous killings of innocent civilians and the high-level defections, Syrian officials were upbeat after talks with the UN-Arab League envoy, who met the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moualem, on Tuesday and Assad himself the day before. A Lebanese official close to Assad's government confirmed, "There is a new mood now and something good is happening."
Nevertheless, these events do not bode well for the future of President Assad himself as he has already lost the faith of his countrymen and world leaders. As Syria is fast moving towards the point of no return, endangering the peace and security of the entire Middle East, his future remains uncertain.
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