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Syrian Prime Minister Defects To Jordan


We are covering other news today, including news out of Syria, where there have been some high-level defections. The prime minister of Syria fled to neighboring Jordan just two months after he was appointed. He says he has joined the opposition. Syrian rebels say that three other cabinet members also defected. These are the highest level departures from the government of Bashar al-Assad since the uprising began well over a year ago.

We're going to talk about this with NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who's monitoring developments from Beirut. Hi, Anthony.


INSKEEP: And as I understand it, the prime minister's departure was accompanied by one of these routines where the government said you can't quit, you're fired.

KUHN: That's exactly right, Steve. It was a face-saving formality done after the fact. The defection was confirmed to us by a Paris-based spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council. He told us that the prime minister is now in Jordan. His family members and other cabinet members have also defected. Their locations have not yet been disclosed due to security reasons.

What was particularly - you know, particularly an insult to the regime was the fact that this member of the ruling Ba'ath Party, this high-ranking cabinet minister, has been for quite some time in secret negotiations with the opposition, the rebel Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian National Council, based in Turkey, and they engineered his defection.

So it's, you know, a huge blow to the regime, and the opposition says it's a very solid signal about the regime's fate.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You said quite some time, this guy. You're talking about Riad Hijab, the former prime minister, right? You're saying that he was in negotiation for quite some time with the opposition, but he was only appointed prime minister two months ago? Does that raise the possibility that even as he was elevated to that position of trust, he was working on his exit plan?

KUHN: We don't know the exact timing of that, but he was not in the office of prime minister for very long. He was an agriculture minister before that. He was also a member of the Sunni majority. He was not a member of the Alawite minority, which forms the core of the ruling Ba'ath Party in President al-Assad's regime. Any way you cut it, it looks - it looks like a terrible blow to the regime's credibility.

INSKEEP: Does this suggest that things are deteriorating quickly for the Assad government if he can't even keep a prime minister on his side for a couple of months?

KUHN: Well, what the opposition spokesman says is that they hope this sends a signal to the remaining cabinet ministers that this is a sinking ship and it's high time that they bailed out too. Whether this will in fact create a domino effect, and other cabinet ministers and high-ranking officials will jump ship, we'll just have to see.

One of the highest ranking officials to go before this was a trusted general named Manaf Tlass, and there was immediately a lot of speculation that he would lead the opposition after defecting. Now there is another high-ranking official who could be seen as a possible leader of the opposition.

INSKEEP: And the other three officials who have defected - did they also get fired on their way out the door?

KUHN: There's been no mention of that. Another issue of concern, though, is that an additional official named in some reports as the finance minister may have been arrested as he attempted to flee, and that could mean trouble for him and his family members. But as I said, the additional cabinet ministers who defected have not yet been identified until they are in a secure place.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Anthony Kuhn about the situation in Syria, where the former prime minister has defected, along with some other top officials. And Anthony, I want to ask about one other thing. There was a blast today at the Syrian state-run television building. What's happening?

KUHN: Yes, a blast hit the third floor of the Syrian state TV broadcaster in central Damascus. And there are no reports of fatalities, but apparently three workers there are injured. And this follows the kidnapping last month and recent execution of a TV news anchor with state - Syrian state TV. And of course this alarms journalist who say that journalists should not be targeted by either side in this civil conflict. But the rebels see them as spokespersons for a regime and they consider them fair game and eligible for kidnapping and assassination.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.