ALEPPO PROVINCE, Syria—Claims that Syrian prime minister Farouk al-Sharaa has fled the country and left the crumbling government of Bashar al-Assad have been denied by Syrian officials.
The news that the 74-year-old had joined opposition fighters and defected to Jordan with two unnamed high-ranking officials was reported by al-Arabiya news channel Saturday following reports of serious disagreements between Al-Sharaa and other members of government in recent weeks. If confirmed, the defection would mark the highest ranking official yet to leave the regime.
Syrian state television denied these reports, saying al-Sharaa “has never at any moment thought of leaving the homeland in whatever direction."
Recent weeks have seen a stream of resignations by Syrian officials, especially among the majority Sunnis who held high ranking positions within the Alawite dominated government. Recent defections include General Manaf Tlas, Minister Riyad Hijab and al-Sharaa’s nephew Yaroob al-Sharaa.
In recent meetings by the Arab League, the possibility of Farouk al-Sharaa becoming successor to the president under a transitional plan had been discussed.
Vice president since 2006, al-Sharaa has been a Syrian politician for more than 40 years, serving under both Bashar and his father, former Syrian president Hafez.
While FSA leaders in al-Sharaa’s hometown of Daraa in Syria’s south claimed he had defected to join their ranks, the news was met with an air of dismissal in the North of the country, where fierce battles continue over the strategic city of Aleppo.
“Honestly, when I was watching television two hours ago and I saw the announcement of al-Sharaa’s defection, I turned the TV off and went back to sleep,” said rebel commander Dr Saleh al-Hamwi. “He is jumping off a sinking ship. This affects the mentality of the regime, but as far as we are concerned, we just don’t care about this anymore. This news is just not important.”
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Al-Hamwi, who worked as a dentist in Hama before the revolution began and now heads several civilian battalions, recalled reports of al-Sharaa’s disappearance one year ago.
“For a month we were all trying to find out if he had defected. If he had, the Syrian people would have accepted him as their new leader. He could have helped rebuild a new regime. But that was one year ago!” al-Hamwi said.
Rebel fighter Mohammed Hajuma, who works between the Turkish border and Syria’s northern provinces coordinating transport for goods and wounded civilians, agreed with al-Hamwi's assessment.
“These who defected within the first 6-months can be considered honorable,” said Hajuma. “Those who remained have participated in the killing. They can defect, they can stay, they can go to hell for all we care.”
As for the president himself, Hajuma said he believes he wants to leave, but foreign powers are forcing him to stay for their own agenda.
Al-Hamwi says it is Bashar’s personal determination that will keep him in place until the end.
“All his actions up to now point to this. Leaks from those close to Assad confirm this,” he said. “Everywhere Assad’s followers have been you see written the words ‘al-Assad ou Nuhrouk al-balad’ [Assad or Syria will burn]. This is not a slogan, it is a decision.”
As defections within both the government and army continue, Bashar seems to be increasingly relying on external allies.
Earlier this week, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that Iran is assisting the Syrian government in setting up “militias designed to take the pressure off over-utilized army units."
During Syria's 18 month revolution, the majority of operations have been carried out by the elite 4th Armored Brigade commanded by President Assad's brother Maher al-Assad.
Fighting between government forces and rebel fighters continued Saturday with reports of shelling in parts of Aleppo, Houla and Damascus. Thirty-four people had been reported killed in the attacks by mid-afternoon.
As Syrian families continue to stream over the borders of Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, the UN has officially registered over 170,000 refugees as a direct result of the Syrian conflict. Thousands more have fled beyond the camps without registration.
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