x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Syria opposition needs to assure army defectors

Getting Syrian military leaders to defect will be a challenge. A first step should be a promise of no retaliation. Alas, the Syrian opposition is saying the opposite.

On Wednesday, Syria's deputy oil minister, Abdu Hussameddin, announced his defection from the Baathist regime. He was a senior member of the Baath party, which yesterday commemorated the 58th anniversary of its 1963 coup. His defection, the highest-level one yet by a civilian official, is highly symbolic.

But such defections will have little effect if the opposition does not take steps to encourage mass defections, particularly from the military. And there are signs the opposition is doing just the opposite.

The regime was preparing against military schism long before the 2011 eruption of regional revolts. Since 2004, the regime has cleansed the military of potential rivalries even among Alawite loyalists. This effort, headed by Major General Ali Habib, was said to have affected about 40 per cent of the top leadership. The process continued until 2009.

So it will naturally take a while for a serious erosion of Bashar Al Assad's military fortress to occur. But when it does, it will prove the most effective element in the bringing down of the regime. Disagreement within the regime was reported after the assault on Hama in September; some thought it risked reopening old wounds from the 1982 Hama massacre, in which tens of thousands of people were killed. Soon after, Maj Gen Habib was sidelined and replaced by a weaker Christian officer.

The opposition should grasp this dynamic and reassure Alawite officers, who hold the highest ranks, that they will not face discrimination and will be protected if they defect. Unfortunately, the opposition has so far vowed to uproot the whole of the regime, including all of Mr Al Assad's Alawite loyalists. Such an attitude means those officers will fight with the regime until the end.

There are also opposition elements that have shown little interest in the defection of higher-ranking officers or officials, to avoid competition. Worse, some Syrian activists reported the systematic killing of Alawite soldiers captured by the Free Syrian Army.

The opposition must send an unequivocal message of a nonsectarian approach to post-Assad Syria. They should follow the example of the 1980s opposition figure Jamal Attasi, whose party affirmed that the regime's violence must not be seen as sectarian, and warned of a Lebanese-style sectarian conflict.

The opposition must build a political infrastructure within the Syrian National Council to accommodate everyone, regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation. It must also unambiguously distance itself from sectarian violence.