Stories broke on the newswires yesterday to the effect that several high-ranking Syrian Army Officers have defected to Turkey. The latest wave of defections of over 50 officers include six brigadier-generals, four colonels and the first female first lieutenant.
This is welcomed news indeed because it puts to test a theory the thick-headed Assad cannot possibly comprehend: The more hardship the Syrian people, the more defections there will be. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy to self-destruct slowly, and given the incessant bombardment of Baba Amr and Rastan of late, the defections reflect what the Assad regime is to expect as it turns its heavy guns on our civilian population.
But not all defections are equal no matter the rank. This is not an issue dealing with penetration of enemy territories, or misinformation campaigns, but rather it is an issue dealing with perception.
In mid-January, a Brig. General by the name of Mustapha al-Sheikh defected. Given his last name, his defection was expected because the al-Sheikh tribal vein extends all the way to Saudi Arabia with many of that family’s patriarchs playing important roles in the Kingdom’s political and military establishments.
Everyone assumed Brig. Gen. al-Sheikh, because of his rank, to simply presume the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, which he failed to do. Today’s FSA leadership remains firmly in the hands of the two Colonels who defected first.
The reason has to do with perception of the Syrian street which is heavily tilted towards those who defected first because of their courage and because they have spent the longest time defending their neighborhoods. The spoils of war come to those who enter the city first.
This is not lost upon the Erdogan Government, which is trying hard to shift the momentum in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. No high-ranking Syrian army officer is even remotely associated with the Islamists, which is causing the MB some real headaches. Once in a while, the Erdogan Government tests the resolve of the defectors through soft harassment techniques. Few days ago, Colonel al-Asa’ad was summoned to Ankara for more briefings but one has to assume for more berating.
Additionally, in a dictatorship where favoritism is far more important than credentials or merit, one should expect that of the many Syrian Generals defecting, some have reached their positions not as a result of their capabilities but rather because of their connections or loyalties.
The real and only leadership of the Free Syrian Army remains in the hands of Col. Riad al-Asa’ad and Col. Ahmad al-Hijazi. As long as the street supports them, no one can isolate them or strip them of their well-earned valor.