The World from Berlin: Syrian Prime Minister's Flight 'Won't Weaken Assad'

The defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab this week is being hailed as a victory for the opposition amid the ongoing civil war, in which rebel fighters reportedly continue to make advances. But German commentators warn on Tuesday that the conflict is far from over.

A Free Syria Army fighter waves from a destroyed tank in the town of Anadan on the outskirts of Aleppo. Zoom
AP

A Free Syria Army fighter waves from a destroyed tank in the town of Anadan on the outskirts of Aleppo.

After celebrating the defection of President Bashar Assad's prime minister, rebel forces in Syria reportedly continue to make gains against regime forces on Tuesday despite fierce resistance.

Riad Hijab fled the embattled country with the help of the opposition, denouncing what he called Assad's "terrorist regime" in a statement read by broadcaster Al Jazeera on Monday. Only installed as prime minister by Assad in May, Hijab's defection is just the latest in a series of similar embarrassments for the Syrian president, whose regime reacted by claiming it had actually fired him. A Sunni Muslim like many of the opposition members, Hijab's appointment was seen as an effort by Assad, who is mainly supported by his minority Alawite sect, to placate the opposition movement.

Hijab's defection is good news for the rebels, who have suffered under intense offensives by Assad's regime around the capital Damascus and Aleppo, the country's largest city. But media reports on Tuesday said the rebels were surprising military experts with their perseverance.

Western leaders also seem encouraged by Hijab's defection, with a spokesperson for US President Barack Obama on Monday hailing it as a sign that the Assad family's 40-year rule was "crumbling from within."

'Time of Assad Has Passed'

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said it was a decisive moment in the conflict. "The time of Assad is passed," he said during a visit to London.

But Western leaders have made such statements repeatedly over the course of the Syrian uprising, which began in the spring of 2011. And Assad's forces, wielding superior weaponry, have recently managed recapture parts of Damascus and Aleppo taken by the rebels in recent weeks.

As the civil war wears on, people in the region seem increasingly divided along sectarian lines, with the mainly Sunni opposition garnering support from Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, while Assad's Alawite government is backed by Shiite Iran.

Following the recent resignation of Kofi Annan, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, already sluggish attempts to solve the conflict diplomatically have come to a virtual standstill. Still opposed to military intervention, the West seems to be banking on an ultimate victory by the opposition. But Assad seems prepared to continue his fight indefinitely.

German media commentators on Tuesday acknowledge the importance of Prime Minister Hijab's defection, but warn that the Syrian civil war is far from over.

Conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Syrian President Bashar Assad hasn't reached his end after the defection of Prime Minister Riad Hijab. But that end is drawing closer: Generals are joining the rebels, ambassadors are defecting, and despite the recapture of Damascus, regime forces are losing control of the country."

"Still, Hijab's flight from the abhorrently brutal actions of the regime won't weaken Assad. He can still rely on the majority of his army, Russia continues to hold out its hand to its Syrian pupil, and the opposition has been divided repeatedly in recent weeks. But Hijab's behavior shows how hopeless Assad's position is. The tighter the president holds to his disappearing power, the deeper the country falls into civil war."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Forecasts about how long this civil war will last are fairly hypothetical, given that it has been increasingly fuelled by interference from neighbors near and far. … Whether it's the endgame or not, the outside world has little power, nor the capability to influence power in and over Syria. Military intervention is impossible for a number of reasons. This isn't Libya in 2011, just a few minutes from Europe in flight time. What remains is far too little to force a decision -- humanitarian aid, diplomatic pressure, and more sanctions. One could ask the additional question as to why Arab League members are demanding so little effort from themselves, while they still deliver weapons to the rebels and otherwise wait on the West -- apparently to demonize it in the end."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"One might think that the Assad regime's last hour isn't far off. Syria is experiencing a kind of religious and ethnic adjustment of the boundaries, largely invisible until now, that criss-cross the country. It will mean nothing less than a radicalization of its civil war on all fronts. While the flight of Prime Minister Riad Hijab certainly weakens the regime, it is also an expression of the increasingly irreconcilable confrontation between Sunnis and Shiites in the country."

"Despite his lofty position, Prime Minister Hijab can only be counted as a peripheral figure. Not just because he's a Sunni, but also because he was only installed by Assad in May, with the promise that there would be sweeping reforms. That was Assad's last attempt to bind the Sunnis to his government. Hijab's flight means that there will be no more reforms, and there will be no compromises from Assad with the opposition. Instead, the conflict in Syria will take on further traits of a religious civil war that will be decided with violence."

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"One deserter does not make an overthrow, even if he comes from the innermost circle of the Syrian leader. … Around 30 Syrian generals have already defected to the opposition, and are now operating from Turkey. … But these departures have had little measurable influence on the state of affairs in the country, though they contradict the president's claim that the majority of the people continue to back him."

"No changes will come through the desertion of a politician or ambassador, much less a general. Their volte-face, however, is a symptom of the inevitable fall of the Syrian minority dictatorship. … But things haven't reached that point yet. The battle is spreading and produces new fronts daily, while the world is incapable taking effective action. And the depressing this is that it can only get worse."

-- Kristen Allen

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