Ali Habib, who is said to have defected to Turkey yesterday, would be the most senior Alawite official to break ranks with Bashar Al Assad. Phil Sands reports
Assad's former defence minister and army chief 'defects'
ISTANBUL // Bashar Al Assad's former defence minister and army chief was said to have defected and arrived in Turkey yesterday, even as Syrian state run media insisted he remained at home.
If true, Ali Habib's defection would make him the most senior Alawite official to break ranks with Bashar Al Assad.
Kamal Labwani, prominent member of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), told Reuters a Western diplomat had informed him of Gen Habib's arrival in Turkey. Suggestions a major regime defection had been circulating on social media in advance of Mr Labwani's public confirmation.
However, the SNC had made no formal announcement yesterday evening and Syrian state run television denied the 74-year-old former defence minister had left the country.
Gen Habib had made no comment as of last night, and it remained unclear if he was going to make any public announcement to confirm his defection, or if he plans join the opposition to Mr Al Assad.
As an Alawite and top ranking military officer, Gen Habib was considered a member of the regime's inner circle at the outbreak of the uprising in March 2011. He was placed under US economic sanctions along with other senior officials.
However, in August 2011 he was unexpectedly replaced as defence minister, officially for health reasons.
The real cause for his replacement maybe have been a disagreement with Mr Al Assad's strategy of crushing peaceful protests using military force. That disagreement appeared to come to a head in Hama, when, according to opposition members, Gen Habib subverted and delayed orders to send in troops to break growing protests.
Little has been heard of him since, apart from a public appearance shortly after his removal from office to deny reports of his own death.
On Tuesday, the SNC announced another defection, of Abdul Tawab Shahrour, head of the Forensic Medicine Authority in Aleppo, who the SNC said, had new information in alleged chemcial weapons attacks in Khan Al Assal.
Dr Shahrour failed to appear at a scheduled press conference in Istanbul on Tuesday evening however, an absence the SNC said related to "security" concerns.
The significance of Gen Habib's defection, if confirmed, is difficult to gauge given that he has been outside of decision-making circles for so long.
Few ranking Alawites have walked out on the regime so his defection may be interpreted as a sign of growing malaise within the ruling Alawite minority over Mr Al Assad's leadership.
It would also be difficult for the regime to explain away Gen Habib's decision by painting him as part of an Israeli-US hatched conspiracy to oust Mr Al Assad.
Gen Habib has cast-iron credentials as a Syrian patriot, having fought in the 1973 war against Israel, commanded troops fighting the Israel invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s, and taking part in the 1990-91 war against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, following his invasion of Kuwait - a mission ordered by former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad, a leader seen as beyond reproach by regime loyalists.
Syria took part in the international coalition formed to push the Iraqi troops out of the Gulf, an unusual example of US-Syrian military cooperation. That mission also gave Gen Habib rare first hand exposure to US and Saudi military officials.
News of his defection may also reignite speculation that a political deal to replaced Mr Al Assad is being concocted.
Gen Habib's name circulated in fairly lofty circles in Damascus during the first half of last year, in relation to a rumoured deal supposedly being put together by powerful regime insiders, seeking Moscow's backing, to replace Mr Al Assad with an interim national unity government under military command.
Such a government would have needed Alawite officers such as Gen Habib to convince other Alawites their interests would be protected.
Those rumours evaporated following the July 2012 bombing of the national security council that killed Asef Shawkat, Mr Al Assad's brother in law, and the men who had preceded and followed Gen Habib as ministers of defence, Gen Hassan Turkmani and Gen Daoud Raja.