Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi has apparently defected to the West, and possibly escaped to London, in what may be one of the most high-profile defections by a regime insider since the civil war in Syria broke out in March 2011.
“All I can say is that he is out of Syria,” an unnamed source told Reuters. Makdissi’s mobile telephone was also reportedly switched off on Monday evening. Rumors published on Twitter and elsewhere suggested Makdissi fled to London, where he previously served as a diplomat, but his whereabouts have yet to be confirmed.
Makdissi’s brother Sami on Tuesday confirmed on Facebook that his brother had defected. “I formally assure that the defection of my brother Jihad from the Syrian regime was due to the large number of crimes and atrocities that are happening at this time in our beloved Syria,” he wrote in Arabic, adding that he had made the post in anticipation of questions on the topic. He said Makdissi would issue a formal statement soon, but did not specify a time.
Later reports suggested that Makdissi’s brother’s Facebook account was hacked and that his post was false.
Although the reason for his reported defection was initially unclear, Makdissi had allegedly been fired for making statements that diverged from President Bashar Assad’s official line. Israel Radio reported that Makdissi had made controversial comments about Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and its possible deployment against civilians, but didn’t provide further information about them. It also said Makdissi’s house in Damascus was reportedly set afire.
On Monday, Western intelligence sources detected activity in Syrian chemical weapons depots, prompting US President Barack Obama to firmly warn Assad. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” Obama said. “And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
Asaad Mustafa, Assad’s former agriculture minister, told Al Arabiya that Makdissi had been expected to defect because “the scale of falsified information he was asked to report was unbearable.” Mustafa also told the news outlet that Makdissi wasn’t the only Syrian diplomat who was looking for a means to flee the country.
Makdissi, a member of Syria’s Christian minority who is fluent in English, was one of the regime’s public faces who defended Assad during his brutal 20-month crackdown on rebel forces and the country’s civilian population.