Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Controversy continues to surround the reported defection of former Syrian Defense Minister Ali Habib, who is said to be in Turkey.
The Syrian foreign ministry has refused to confirm or deny Habib’s defection, which was initially announced by senior Syrian National Coalition (SNC) member Kamal Al-Labwani on Tuesday.
Speaking to Reuters on Tuesday, Labwani said: “Ali Habib has managed to escape from the group of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition.”
“I was told this by a western diplomatic official,” he added.
However Syrian state television denied that Habib had left Syria, claiming that he was still at his home. For his part, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu refused to confirm or deny Habib’s defection.
In subsequent comments exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Labwani claimed that Habib fled Syria for Turkey with the aid of a western intelligence agency.
He reaffirmed that “Habib’s flight [from Syria] does not mean that he has joined the opposition. Most likely, the western countries need him before the expected military strike against the regime as they consider him to be a mine of information.”
A Free Syrian Army (FSA) officer, speaking to Reuters news agency on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Habib appeared to have coordinated his defection with the United States.
Habib had served as Syrian Defense Minister until the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011, when Assad replaced him with Daoud Rajiha without offering a clear explanation or reason for the ministerial reshuffle. Rajiha, for his part, was killed on July 18, 2012, in the bombing of the Syrian National Security headquarters in Damascus. Syria’s current defense minister, Fahd Jassem Al-Freji, was appointed to succeed Rajiha.
Labwani told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Syrian regime kept Habib out of military decision-making after he refused to order the army into the city of Hama, placing him under house arrest.”
He described Habib’s refusal to send Syrian troops into Hama as a “patriotic decision.”
Labwani also claimed that “Habib has strong ties with the US, he coordinated US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s visit to the city of Hama during the early days of the revolution, while he was also the commanding officer of the Syrian forces that participated in the liberation of Kuwait.”
If reports of his defection are accurate, Habib is the senior-most Alawite figure to abandon the Assad’s regime.
However, Labwani played down speculation that Habib could act as a western-backed replacement for Assad. Labwani nonetheless confirmed that this scenario has been studied, adding that this would see Habib head a western-backed military committee which could then enter negotiations with the FSA on behalf of Damascus.
However, he added that the West had facilitated Habib’s exits from Syria for a different objective, namely to take advantage of his knowledge of Syrian military affairs, including the location of bases and military sites, in any forthcoming strike.