Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – Sources close to “former” Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Maqdisi informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the senior Syrian official had been speaking about leaving Syria for a long period of time, but he was waiting to ensure the safety of his family before taking any action. The sources claimed that al-Maqdisi was able to transfer his family, including his parents, to Beirut and from there to London, before he himself fled the country. The sources added that al-Maqdisi would most likely hold a press conference in the coming days to officially announce his defection from the al-Assad regime.
It appears that al-Maqdisi was right to ensure his family’s safety before fleeing Syria, for the al-Assad regime’s response to his defection has been quick and brutal. Opposition sources revealed that Syrian regime forces had burnt al-Maqdisi’s home to the ground on Monday night following news of his defection. The press office of the opposition Syrian Military Council confirmed this news, saying “regime forces set fire to the home of the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman located in Damascus’s upscale al-Mezza district.”
For its part, Britani’s Guardian newspaper initially quoted “usually reliable diplomatic sources” who claimed that al-Maqdisi is “en route for – or already in – the US after managing to leave the capital, Damascus, for Beirut.” In Washington, a US State Department spokesman said “we are not in a position to confirm his actions or whereabouts.” However the newspaper later quoted Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, Chris Doyle, who reported that al-Maqdisi was in London and being debriefed by UK officials.
Al-Maqdisi was appointed spokesman for Syria’s Foreign Ministry shortly after the uprising against the al-Assad regime erupted in March 2011. Prior to this, he worked at the Syrian Embassy in London. Al-Maqdisi is fluent in English and a communications professional. In his tenure as Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, al-Maqdisi strongly supported the al-Assad regime, including in the wake of several massacres. When government forces were blamed for the deaths of some 103 people, including 49 children, in an incident known as the Houleh massacre, last May, al-Maqdisi dismissed this as a “tsunami of lies.”
Al-Maqdisi is a member of Syria’s Christian minority, which has largely backed the al-Assad regime. He had previously been viewed as something of a “hero” to al-Assad regime loyalists, being crowned with numerous affectionate titles such as “the regime’s man” and even “al-Assad’s James Bond”. However following news of his defection, al-Maqdisi has been dismissed as a traitor and foreign agent.
The precise details surrounding al-Maqdisi’s defection – or fleeing of Syria – remain unclear. In fact, Lebanon’s al-Manar TV – quoting Syrian government sources – claimed that al-Maqdisi had been sacked by the al-Assad regime for making statements that did not reflect the government’s position. Controversy erupted in July when al-Maqdisi issued a statement saying that Syria was not going to use its chemical weapons, thereby tacitly admitting that Syria was in possession of such arms.