Members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle are secretly making plans to defect to the opposition should the Syrian regime become critically threatened by the rebellion, U.S. officials told The Daily Telegraph.
The officials said senior military figures are understood to be laying down “exit strategies” and establishing lines of communication with the rebels to discuss how they would be received if they deserted.
The report came after on Thursday a high-ranking Air Force officer defected and flew to Jordan. The fighter pilot handed himself over to authorities, together with the aircraft, upon reaching the King Hussein Air Base in Mafraq near the Syrian border.
Jordan's information minister later said that the Hashemite kingdom had granted asylum to fighter pilot, Hassan Merei al-Hamade.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the pilots of three other MiGs on the mission also considered defecting, but were worried about being turned away.
A senior U.S. official in Washington told the newspaper that some of those closest to the Syrian leader were now preparing to flee. “We are seeing members of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle make plans to leave,” the official said, adding that this has included moving large sums of money offshore into Lebanese and Chinese banks and making contact with opposition elements and Western governments.
Syrian opposition groups confirmed that they were actively courting American help to encourage more defections, with one senior opposition source telling the Daily Telegraph, “I know for sure there are some high-ranking officers who are waiting for the right chance to defect.”
The source added, “We have names of people in the presidential palace. There are rumors that there is one who is really close to the president and we are expecting to see him out of the country soon.”
An activist told the newspaper that the defection of al-Hamade raised opposition hopes that it could provoke the start of the exodus. The air force is considered fiercely loyal to the Assad regime.
“He and three other MiGs were on a mission to bomb [southern rebel stronghold of] Dera’a. He has risked his life,” the activist said. “There was talk about defections, but the three other fighter planes did not because they were afraid and because they were unsure how they will be received in Jordan.”
The White House said on Thursday that the Obama administration “welcomed this pilot’s decision to do the right thing”.
According to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “This is how these things start. It is obviously a significant moment when a guy takes a $25 million plane and flies it to another country.”
Opposition groups claim that the Assad regime has managed to prevent widespread defections with a carefully orchestrated campaign in which the families of diplomats and high-level figures are used to blackmail them to remain loyal.
Syria denounced al-Hamade as a "traitor" and “a deserter”, saying “he will be punished under military rules.”
(Arutz Sheva’s North American Desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)