Syrian Military Defections Continue — and Grow
The exodus of civilians fleeing the terror and tyranny in Syria has been massive and relentless.
An estimated 35,000 displaced Syrians have fled the fighting and the massacre in their country and have sought refuge in camps in Turkey along the border with Syria.
But recently, more military, including high-ranking officers and pilots — at least one with his fighter jet — have been leaving Syria for neighboring countries and to freedom.
Many Syrian troops who cannot or do not want to leave Syria, including dozens of Syrian military officers, “have defected to the opposition forces and taken their weapons with them.” Just in one incident, a First Lieutenant and 39 other military officers switched sides during fierce fighting at Deir al-Zor airport two weeks ago, according to one of the defectors.
On June 21, Syrian Air Force pilot Col. Hassan Hammadeh flew his MiG-21 jet fighter out of a military airport northeast of Damascus, landed the fighter at King Hussein Air Base in Mafraq, about 50 miles north of Amman, Jordan, and asked for political asylum.
It was the first known defection involving a military aircraft since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Perhaps only hours later, three more Syrian pilots defected to Jordan but without their aircraft
“The three pilots entered Jordan after crossing the border illegally, and they were housed in one of the provinces of the kingdom after the authorities provided security,” according to a report in the Jordanian Al-Arab Al-Yaum.
A couple of days later, The Independent reported that another large group of senior military officers, including a brigadier-general, had defected from Assad’s forces, “piling further pressure on the increasingly isolated Syrian leader. The group, one of the largest to leave the Syrian army, crossed into Turkey with relatives…”
On July 3, nearly 300 Syrians defected to Turkey, including 85 soldiers, including a general and several other officers. This defection brought to 15 the number of Syrian generals to have crossed into Turkey, abandoning the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Pentagon officials call the defection of Syrian Army Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass — who sought asylum in Turkey — “significant” and that this could be the first crack in the inner circle around the Syrian dictator.
“He is a former friend of Assad, so we don’t believe this defection should be taken lightly,” [Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John] Kirby said. “It’s another example of a senior member in the Syrian army that has decided to turn against the Syrian regime and to stop committing violent acts against its people.”
Tlass is the son of former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass, according to U.S. officials. The elder Tlass served in the position from 1972 to 2004 and helped the Assad family set up the repressive regime in Syria.
This defection is considered different from those that have occurred previously, U.S. officials said, noting Tlass is a general officer who had a long, personal, close association with the Assad family.
U.S. officials hope this latest defection will lead to more from the regime’s inner circle. “I’d be hard-pressed to say that the regime is about to crack under the weight of defections,” Kirby said.
On the continuing violence in Syria and the military exercises that began yesterday in that country, the following from a Pentagon media briefing today:
Defense Department officials are closely monitoring events in Syria, including the military exercises that began yesterday, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said today.
Media reports characterize the exercises as large-scale and simulating responses to external attacks on the nation’s forces.
“I don’t know that this military exercise suggests anything new about the conflict, or if it may simply be visual bravado on the part of the [Bashar] Assad regime,” Little said, responding to reporters’ questions during a regularly scheduled media briefing. Assad has ruled Syria since his father, Hafez al-Assad, died in 2000. The elder Assad had ruled for 29 years.
Little strongly repeated the department’s position on Syria, where the military has used lethal force in an effort to crush popular uprisings that began in January 2011. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon estimates that as many as 17,000 people have been killed in the violence.
“This regime continues to mount despicable attacks against Syrian civilians, and the violence that the regime is perpetrating must end,” Little said. Defense officials have not yet classed the exercise as “provocative,” he noted, but he added that judgment could change based on events.
“What we view as much more serious, at this stage, is the continued wanton murder of Syrian civilians,” he said.
Little responded to a question on reports that Russia will halt arms sales to Syria, saying he can’t confirm that information. “We welcome any move by any nation to stop supplying the Assad regime,” he said.
The press secretary noted defense officials also are closely monitoring events on the Turkish-Syrian border. Tensions between the two countries have escalated following Turkey’s June 22 report that Syrian forces shot down a Turkish F-4 fighter jet and its two-member crew.
“We hope that this terrible violence in Syria doesn’t spread,” Little said. “We understand Turkey’s concerns, and we’ll continue to work closely with our Turkish allies.”