Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

Defecting from Syrian regime made Riad Hijab the people's bureaucrat

The reasons behind Riad Hijab's departure as the Syrian prime minister may be as murky as his career rise through the Baath party.
Patrick Morgan for The National
Patrick Morgan for The National

Last Monday, Syrian state television abruptly declared that "Prime Minister Riad Hijab has been dismissed". In contrast, Hijab's spokesman read a statement to Al Jazeera from the safety of Amman, in which the allegedly fired prime minister announced his "defection today from the regime of killing and terror", and that he had joined "the ranks of the revolt". He charged that "Syria is passing through the most difficult war crimes, genocide and barbaric killings and massacres against unarmed citizens".

Now that Hijab has joined the opposition, he has become a "personality of national stature who is loved by all the people, not only Sunnis but Alawites and others as well", according to Mohammed Sermini, the spokesman for the SNC coalition. That is something of a stretch, since nothing about his demeanour or previous record suggests that the colourless bureaucrat has had much success in winning hearts and minds among ordinary Syrians.

Indeed, the defecting prime minister resembles more a canary down the coal mine than a soaring Syrian eagle. In Hijab's case, his defection signals that the atmosphere inside Bashar Al Assad's toxic regime is not conducive to political longevity.

Naturally in the Levantine context, the rumour is that the Saudis will reward him generously for his courage, and that is why he left. However, against that is the pragmatic argument that Syrian ministers could and would reward themselves quite adequately at home if the regime had any serious prospects. Hijab has presumably decided Assad's regime does not, and that the Gulf offers better prospects to himself, wife and four children.

In fairness, his departure was not without peril. He seems to have taken several days crossing Syria to get into Jordan, and his escape was apparently coordinated with the Syrian rebels, in particular the Al Motassem Billah battalion. Not only is his defection a sign of crumbling strength and support for the Baathist regime, but the very fact of his escape with 35 family members from Damascus to Amman in a series of convoys strongly indicates that Assad is losing control on the ground while the opposition is becoming more skilled and resourceful.

Perhaps the key here is the extended controlling political family. Baathists took their lessons from Stalin in using threats to families to force compliance, so it is natural that they should all have to be rescued together. But it might also be the means for his defection in that family contacts facilitated contact with the opposition, which is strong in his home region.

So far there appears to be nothing in his public record to indicate that his part in the regime was more than technocratic. That said, nothing in his career so far indicated any hints of dissent or diehard attachment to democracy on the part of the stocky defector, whose pictures suggest that with a leather jacket he would be a worthy recruit for the Mukhabarat had he ever decided to shift from his Baathist apparatchik career.

A technocrat with a doctorate in agricultural engineering, Riad previously held the post of minister of agriculture. But he has mostly been a Baathist functionary, serving, for example, as president of the Syrian students union in Deir Ezzor in the east of Syria from 1989-1998. This implies a lot of politicking and not much studying, a conclusion reinforced when he worked his way up the hierarchy to head the Baath party in his home area.

Even so, he became governor for the front line Syrian city of Quneitra in the Golan Heights, confronting the Israeli occupiers, where he would have implemented the regime's policy of public confrontation but tacit accommodation with Israel. The regime reinforced those bonds of trust when Assad appointed him governor of Latakia early last year, not long after the protests against the regime began.

Clearly, Hijab had stayed on side after he joined the government as minister of agriculture, which was something of a hot potato since the sector had been neglected by Baathist policies hitherto. This June, Assad appointed him prime minister after the much derided election that the opposition boycotted.

Once again, the rumour mill claims that he was already in conversations with the opposition about defecting, but with all the shadow boxing it is difficult to determine the truth of almost any claim.

Damascus's claims that he was dismissed from the premiership could have been because his loyalties were suspect, so it has the same effect as his defection. It is also a reflection of the relative powerlessness of the prime minister in relation to the president that he had to flee with his family and failed to bring with him significant sections of the bureaucracy. Riad was not an alternative power centre. Indeed, his political career was entirely in the gift of Assad.

However, it might be significant that he was a Sunni, and his departure removes yet another fig leaf for the modern Baath party's Pan-Arab credentials. Michel Aflaq, its founder, was a Christian Arab, and minorities like him were significant in creating the Arab socialist movement's secular nationalist ideology, substituting for the previous automatic identity with Islam. The Iraqi branch was hijacked by the Sunni tribes around Saddam Hussein, who declared Aflaq had become a Muslim before he died.

The Syrian Baathists, who similarly championed Aflaq's rival Zaki Al Arsuzi, became an Alawite front under the leadership of the Assads but maintained the veneer of Arab nationalism enough to keep Sunnis, Christians and Druze under their joint banner. But as what has now become a civil war became more and more of an overt struggle by the Alawite elite to maintain their power at whatever cost to the other groups (particularly the Sunni majority), it became more difficult for those like Hijab who supported the Baath based on some combination of commitment to its ideology and an attraction to the prerogatives of power. That ideology evaporated in the shelling of Arab cities, and the Alawites power does not have a long shelf life, either.

Abandoning cynicism, it is entirely possible that Riad finally deduced that the regime's expedient nationalism held nothing for him and his compatriots but was reduced to a struggle first for power, and secondly (and sadly) for survival by the Alawi elites.

Along with the other defections and no matter how uncharismatic his record before his defection, he is now a prize for the opposition as it assembles an alternative government from more rational and less bloodthirsty officials and politicians. He has the authority to enhance the rebel position and show other Baathist officials that despite Assad's calumnies about the resistance being comprised of "fundamentalists and terrorists", they are safe to defect.

It cannot be too quick. If he has contacts among the Alawi elements of the Baath and can reassure them of their safety, it will be of immeasurable help in bringing down the regime more quickly and safely without a descent into sectarian chaos, not just for Syria but for the region, as other powers from Iran to Israel circle around like vultures seeing what they can pull from the eviscerated corpse of the once proud Arab state.

Riad Hijab might yet be a name to make the history books - and not just some transient headlines.

Mark Seddon is the former UN Correspondent for Al Jazeera English television.

Updated: August 10, 2012 04:00 AM