Austin Bay
Late last week, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab denounced his boss, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, fled to Jordan and pledged allegiance the anti-Assad rebellion.

When asked at a news conference to evaluate the significance of Hijab's defection, U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell declared that the defections of many former Assad loyalists indicate "that the (Assad) regime is crumbling."

Ventrell described other recent defectors: a senior intelligence officer, three brigadier generals and two other government ministers.

Defections by senior political and military personnel do politically damage the Assad regime. They indicate that Assad's political base within Syria is shrinking.

But erosion of the core of the Assad regime? That remains an open question.

Assad's own ethno-religious group, the Alawites, provide the political and security bedrock of his regime. Though comprising only 10 percent of Syria's population, the Alawites control the key positions in the police and military forces. They are nominally Shia Muslims, but most sources describe their faith as theologically heterogeneous, Islam with a dash of Christianity and (possibly) a trace of ancient Levantine or Canaanite pagan practices.

A reporter at the State Department press conference, after noting that Prime Minister Hijab is a Sunni Muslim Arab, asked Ventrell if any recent defectors were Alawites and wondered "...are we actually seeing any of the real (Assad) inner circle defect?"

Ventrell admitted he didn't know "about the different ethnic and sectarian backgrounds" of the defectors, but that U.S. policy focuses on the future, a democratic, pluralistic future, one that will be shared by all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity and sect.

That's the vision, and it sounds good. The State Department, however, could not produce any evidence that Alawite sect support for Assad is fading. Another reporter referred to claims by Syrian refugees that Alawites man the "shabiha" militias, which attack rebel neighborhoods. Alawites may be desperate, but they aren't crumbling.

Rebel organizations like the Syrian National Council (SNC) contend that defections like Hijab's demonstrate that Syrians regard the rebels as the legitimate political alternative to Assad. Perhaps. The rebels have demonstrated resilience. They have not, however, forged a coherent political organization capable of governing Syria. Despite 15 months of prodding by Turkey and its NATO allies, the rebels remain politically fragmented.

Fragments are the product of, well, crumbling, to use the State Department's word.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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