Defection highlights sectarian divide in Syrian government

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.

Sectarian trend

“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.

Defying setbacks

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 government.

Survival strategy

Reached 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.”


(Billboard of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Photo: watchsmart/