x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Defectors have a vital role to stabilise Syria

Shallal's defection is another crippling blow to the regime. The opposition has to learn to use these high-profile figures to its own, and Syria's, advantage.

In his defection statement on Tuesday, Syria's former military police chief accused the army of failing to protect the people and devolving into "destructive and murderous gangs". With the rebels making military gains on a daily basis, news of defections have taken a backseat. But Major General Abdelaziz Al Shallal's decision to abandon the Assads has special significance.

Gen Al Shallal is one of only a few major generals to have defected, and he can offer insights into the inner workings of the military, especially its relation to the mukhabarat security apparatus. Syria's military police is a fearsome force, particularly for Syrian youth in the army. Besides the symbolic significance, Gen Al Shallal's defection indicates that regime insiders have started to realise that the end is approaching quickly.

As the regime crumbles, the expertise of such high-ranking officers will be indispensable. And yet there is a tendency among some elements of the opposition to exclude defectors at this late date, arguing that they are simply jumping from a sinking ship, rather than truly opposing the regime's horrors. Regardless, the opposition needs these defectors and their expertise to prevent the country from slipping into chaos.

There are signs that defectors are welcomed - or excluded - based on political bickering within the opposition. Consider the cases of two recent defectors: Riad Hijab, the former prime minister, and Brigadier General Salim Idris. Both defected almost at the same time, nearly 17 months into the uprising. But while Gen Idris has been selected as chief of staff for the newly formed military council, the proposal that Mr Hijab will head an interim government has met stiff resistance.

That indicates, at the least, that there is no clear mechanism to reconcile and utilise the regime's defectors and their expertise. The National Coalition, now recognised by about 140 countries as the sole representative of the Syrian people, must end the internal politicking that has plagued the opposition from the start.

There are reports of defectors who have reached out to extremists after being marginalised by the recognised opposition. This is alarming: former members of the Baathist regime tend to lean towards secularism, and should counterbalance extremist groups.

The disastrous lesson of Iraq's 2003 de-Baathification, which laid the ground for a protracted war, should be lesson enough. In a new Syria, there will be a place for everyone. Many leaders in the political opposition have been outside the country for decades. They have no right to deny a place to defectors who have risked themselves and their families to come to the right side.