General Ali Habib, Syria’s former defense minister and army chief and a member of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, has defected and arrived in Turkey earlier this week, Syrian opposition forces said Thursday. Syrian state-run media denied the claims. If true, this would make Habib the most senior official in the Assad inner circle to defect, as very few high-ranking Alawites have broken ranks with the regime.
In 2011, Habib reportedly resigned — some say was dismissed — in protest over what he deemed was a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Syria. He had been under house arrest since then. Habib served as defense minister from June 2009 until August 2011. The official line for his resignation was “health reasons.”
Shortly after his resignation/dismissal, reports circulated that he had been executed by the regime. He then appeared on Syrian TV to quell the rumors.
Habib reached the border with Turkey late on Tuesday, according to Kamal al-Labwani of the Syrian National Coalition, who was cited by Reuters.
“Habib is a simple and honest. Unlike the Assads he is not corrupt,” a military defector who served under Habib was quoted by the Lebanese Daily Star as saying. “His defection will rattle the Alawite community because it will be seen as another man jumping off a sinking boat, indicating the coming fall of the regime.”
Habib reportedly fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel, commanded troops in Lebanon in 1982 during Israel’s invasion, and took part in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.
The Syrian National Coalition made no official announcement confirming his defection. Neither did Habib. It remains unclear if the 74-year-old would actively join the opposition against Assad. The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, also could not confirm the defection.
Earlier this week, the UAE’s The National reported that the Council announced another defection — that of Abdul Tawab Shahrour, the head of the Forensic Medicine Authority in Aleppo. The Council said Shahrour had new information about alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
Shahrour did not appear, however, at a scheduled press conference in Istanbul on Tuesday, an absence the Council said was related to “security concerns.”