x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Assad regime 'near collapse', says defecting prime minister

Riyad Hijab urges officials and military leaders to join Syria's revolution and says president Bashar Al Assad's regime now controls less than 30 per cent of the country.

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his sniper rifle from a house in Aleppo. Syria’s former prime minister Riyad Hijab says the Assad regime is collapsing ‘morally, materially and economically’.
A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his sniper rifle from a house in Aleppo. Syria’s former prime minister Riyad Hijab says the Assad regime is collapsing ‘morally, materially and economically’.

Bashar Al Assad's regime controls no more than 30 per cent of Syria and is on the verge of collapse, its former prime minister says.

Appearing in public for the first time since he defected last week and fled with his family to Jordan, Riyad Hijab urged military commanders to join the rebels.

"I tell you out of my experience and the position I occupied that the regime is collapsing, morally, materially and economically," he said in Amman.

Mr Hijab said he felt "pain in his soul" over shelling and other attacks as the the regime stepped up its military offensive. Activists say more than 20,000 people been killed since the uprising began in March last year. "I was powerless to stop the injustice," Mr Hijab said.

"Syria is full of honourable officials and military leaders waiting for the chance to join the revolution. I urge the army to follow the example of Egypt's and Tunisia's armies - take the side of the people."

His portrayal of a dynasty in its death throes was echoed in Mecca, where Syria's membership of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is expected to be suspended during a two-day emergency summit called by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

The Arab League has already suspended Syria, a humiliating rejection for a country that once claimed to be the spearhead of Arab nationalism.

The OIC's secretary general, Ekmeleddin Ihsangolu, said Syria was now an outcast, and Mr Al Assad and his regime were "ignoring the legitimate demands and aspirations of the people" and leading his country down "a dark tunnel which has no clear end".

"Syria should know that the scorched-earth policy has never been a guarantee for stability, or a safety valve," Mr Ihsanoglu said.

The summit in Mecca is an attempt by King Abdullah to prevent differences between supporters and enemies of Mr Al Assad from deepening and spilling over into Syria's neighbours. Along with Turkey and Qatar, Saudi Arabia is backing rebels seeking to overthrow the regime, while Iran is standing by Damascus.

Riyadh has warned that the refusal of Mr Al Assad and his allies to give way risks igniting a regional conflict that could engulf the Muslim world.

The Saudi king is concerned about "friction between the sects", said Abdullah Al Shammri, a political analyst and columnist for the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al Yaum. "Many Sunni Muslims feel that Iran is the reason that we couldn't come to a solution on Syria."

The Saudi minister of culture and information, Abdulaziz bin Mohieddin Khoja, said the summit was aimed at "adopting moderation and tolerance, rejecting extremism, terrorism and sectarianism, which definitely lead to rifts" amid "disastrous circumstances" in the region.

The discussions in Mecca are expected to be stormy. Iran, which is represented at the summit by its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has accused the Saudi government of escalating Syria's civil war by supporting and arming the opposition.

The opposition Syrian National Council welcomed moves to revoke Syria's OIC membership. "Any further isolation of the murderous Assad regime is good," said Ausama Monajed, a regional spokesman for the organisation in Dubai. "It will add extra layers of pressure on them and their allies."

It is impossible to gauge what impact a suspension would have on the ground in Syria, where violence is escalating. "The battle in Syria is being fought out on the ground, not in multilateral institutions," said Hussein Ibish, a columnist for the Pan Arab daily Al Hayat and Lebanon Now.

Government and opposition forces continued to battle for control of key districts in Aleppo yesterday as thousands of civilians fled the city. Turkey closed its border yesterday after its main refugee camp reached capacity at 60,000.

Humanitarian aid for civilians caught up in the fighting, as well as the estimated 300,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, was an important issue of the summit in Mecca, said the OIC's director of political affairs, Mahdi Fathallah.

"It's not just about a political declaration; it is about helping on the ground."

In addition to Syria, the summit will discuss the displacement of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Israel-Palestine peace process, instability in Yemen and the takeover of Mali's north by Islamist extremist groups.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by the Associated Press