Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – Uncertainty surrounds the possible defection of senior Syrian military officer, Brigadier General Rustom Ghazali, head of Branch 227 of Syrian military intelligence. This comes after conflicting information has been reported regarding Ghazali’s defection, with Syrian opposition sources claiming that the high ranking officer has indeed defected from the al-Assad regime, with members of his family arriving in Amman. However other pro-regime sources have claimed that the report of Ghazali’s defection is a fabrication by the Syrian opposition with the objective of raising the morale of the “armed terrorists”.
The 59-year old general, Brigadier General Rustom Ghazali, who is a Sunni, was appointed as head of Syria’s military intelligence in Lebanon in 2002. He is considered to be part of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, and has served as head of Branch 227 of Syria’s military intelligence since the beginning of the revolution. Branch 227 has been implicated in cases of torture and crimes against humanity by Human Rights Watch.
Corroborating reports of Ghazali’s defection, Syrian opposition sources have claimed that the pro-regime Shabiha militia stormed the village of Qarfa in Daraa governorate, the hometown of the Ghazali family. Reports indicate that the Shabiha burned down cars and houses, and specifically targeted the Ghazali home. This comes after confirmation that members of the Ghazali family – not including Rustom – had fled the country for Jordan. Brigadier General Rustom Ghazali’s brother-in-law appeared on a YouTube video announcing his own defection from Daraa’s Air Force Intelligence Bureau to join the opposition Free Syrian Army [FSA] Saif al-Din Battalion.
However Rustom Ghazali himself, or at least somebody claiming to be the Syrian Brigadier General, conducted a telephone interview with the pro-Assad Addounia TV yesterday, during which he stressed that the reports of his defections were untrue and “evidence of the bankruptcy of the instigating media outlets.” Ghazali asserted “I continue to carry out my normal duties and operations along with all members of my family.”
However a senior FSA source denied this, informing Asharq Al-Awsat that Ghazali had indeed defected from the al-Assad regime, stressing that “information in our possession confirms that Ghazali has fled the country.” The source, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, revealed that “Ghazali has been trying to flee the country for quite a while, because he knows that he has been sentenced to death by the Syrian regime in light of the fact that he is one of the major witnesses in the case of the assassination of former [Lebanese] prime minister Rafik Hariri.”
For his part, Ahmed Ramadan, a member of the Syrian National Council [SNC] Executive Bureau told Asharq Al-Awsat that “we have received information about the defection of Rustom Ghazali, however we have been unable to confirm this, and the regime’s denial of this defection may be along the lines of what it did when General Manaf Tlass defected, which was later proven true.”
Ramadan revealed that this represents Ghazali’s third attempt to flee the country, adding that “approximately six weeks ago, Ghazali contacted the Syrian opposition and informed them of his desire to flee to Jordan and then to Paris, and preparations were made in this regard, however Ghazali soon retreated from his position for personal reasons which may be tied to his family’s departure from Syria.”
The senior SNC member informed Asharq Al-Awsat that after the al-Assad regime discovered Ghazali’s intentions to flee the country, it attempted to assassinate him with a car bomb that detonated too late
Ramadan also said he expected more defections to take place in the forthcoming period, adding this will include defections from al-Assad’s inner circle, some of whom are working to guarantee their family’s safe departure from Syria before joining them abroad. He also stressed that this state of affairs is evidence that the al-Assad regime is facing its end.
For his part, Samir al-Nashar, also of the SNC, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the defection of Rustom Ghazali – if confirmed – is evidence that the al-Assad regime is disintegrating from the inside. He expressed his regret that only Sunni figures are defecting, which is a dangerous indication that Syria is entering a state of civil war, which is the main objective of the al-Assad regime.
Al-Nashar stressed that “the massacres that are being committed by the Syrian regime against the Sunnis are all serving this objective and this therefore pushes Syria and the region as a whole towards a sectarian war. This war is being backed by Russia, which is providing al-Assad with political cover, namely the Annan plan, which supports his survival in power.”
He also indicated that the Syrian opposition, including the SNC, welcomes any defections from the al-Assad regime, particularly those figures whose defections contribute to the collapse of the regime. Al-Nashar confirmed that this does not mean that the Syrian opposition is coordinating with or aiding these defectors, particularly with regards to those officials who have been implicated in the deaths of the Syrian people, stressing that they will later be brought to trial for any crimes they committed for the al-Assad regime.
For his part, Adel al-Omari, a Daraa-based Syrian dissident told Asharq Al-Awsat that al-Assad regime forces raided the home of Rustom Ghazali yesterday morning. He revealed that “yesterday, one of his [Ghazali’s] relatives defected, and he is an officer in the Air Force Intelligence Bureau. As for today, we received information that Rustom Ghazali has defected, but we have not been able to obtain any other information.”
Al-Omari also denied the description of Ghazali as a defector, saying that all that is certain is that he has fled the country. He stressed that “he [Ghazali] is a traitor and we will not accept him joining the ranks of the opposition, particularly as he played a big part in suppressing the protests and killing Syrian people…so he is embroiled in the violence against the revolution, and he personally gave orders to kill and arrest.”
He added “although we consider the SNC to be our legitimate representative, we – as the political activists on the ground – are well aware of the reality of the situation and are suffering more than the members of the SNC abroad.”
As for Ghazali’s operations during the Syrian revolution, al-Omari told Asharq Al-Awsat that “he was head of operations at the Baathist party headquarters in Daraa, and he issued orders to kill families and arrest political activists.” He added that a large number of Ghazali family members had previously joined the Syrian revolution, many of whom defecting from the al-Assad military forces.
Al-Omari also revealed that Ghazali’s duties for the al-Assad regime in Daraa included negotiating with the families of Daraa since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.
For her part, prominent Syrian dissident Suhair al-Attasi revealed that “when we were imprisoned [in Daraa], Rustom Ghazali came to us to inform us of the forces that the Syrian people would face if they dared to do what the Libya people did. He made us understand and sent the message that the regime would kill the people [if they revolted].”