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Syria’s Good Soldier

Meet the man who could be the next president in Damascus. If he's not already dead.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT – It was Sept. 4, and the war drums were sounding in Syria. The United States appeared to be on the verge of launching strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Family members of the country’s economic and political elite fled to Beirut, looking to avoid the cruise missiles. And there were rumblings that the Syrian opposition had secured their most important defection yet from the regime’s ranks: former Defense Minister Ali Habib.

Habib is an Alawite, the sect to which the Assad family belongs, and a career military man. He served in the Syrian military for over a half-century, rising to the rank of lieutenant general. Now, however, he may be preparing for a new assignment — presenting himself as a leader of the transitional government in a post-Assad Syria.

After the initial flurry of reports about Habib’s defection, news about his whereabouts and activities ceased entirely. Syrian state media said that he remained at his home in the town of Safita, in the Alawite heartland, but has not aired any visual evidence of him being in Syria. Meanwhile, those who would have knowledge of Habib’s defection provide a muddled picture about his fate. In interviews, former American and Syrian officials said that they had no proof that Habib had fled Syria, while a Turkish diplomatic official also affirmed that he had no information confirming Habib’s defection. However, two Syrian opposition sources and an Arab official with knowledge of Syrian politics — citing Western diplomatic sources and Turkish officials, respectively — said that Habib broke with the regime and fled to Turkey, where they believe he is now working with international powers on plans for a political transition from the Assad regime.

If these reports are true, there are several reasons Habib could be the man to move Syria past the Assad family’s rule. He is a decorated army officer who could keep the military intact, and he is not thought to have played an active role in the bloodshed that has wracked his country over the past two and a half years. He is also an Alawite, as are the members of Assad’s family, and could potentially win over members of the Alawite community who have so far seen no alternative but to support Assad to the bitter end. "The community has a dilemma: How do we unhitch our wagon from this Assad-Makhlouf clan and still maintain our safety?" said Ambassador Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former special advisor to President Barack Obama on Syria. "And part of the answer could be someone like this emerging who is willing to say, ‘It’s safe to jump.’"

That said, Habib’s backstory might give many in the Syrian opposition reason to pause. Until 2011, Habib had impeccable credentials as a loyal foot soldier of the Assad regime. He rose steadily through the ranks under former President Hafez al-Assad and commanded the Syrian troops who were sent to Kuwait to join the U.S.-led coalition that pushed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from the country in 1991. When Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000, Habib was one of the members of the old guard that the new president kept on, promoting him to army chief of staff in 2004 and then to defense minister in 2009.

Under Assad, the general regularly laid out the official regime line for both domestic and international audiences. In October 2009, for example, state media reported that Habib warned that Syria had been "a target for the Zionist colonialist schemes," but that, "thanks to President al-Assad’s wisdom, Syria foiled those schemes." Even in April 2011, at the very beginning of the uprising, Syrian state media quoted Habib as saying that the country’s enemies "have neglected the fact that the Syrian people fortified their national unity with blood." 

As Syria spiraled out of control, however, domestic and foreign sources said that Habib quickly dissented from Assad’s decision to crush the revolt through military force. According to a former Syrian official, Habib bitterly resisted efforts to involve the army in putting down the nascent protest movement. Where was Assad’s feared domestic intelligence apparatus, he wondered, and why were the regime’s enforcers proving powerless when faced with precisely the crisis they should have been preparing for?

Meanwhile, opposition members said that Habib delayed plans to launch military assaults on the Syrian protesters in the cities of Hama and Homs. Kamal Labwani, who first reported that Habib had fled to Turkey, said that the defense minister also facilitated U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford’s trip to Homs in July 2011.

The opposition at the time was still unarmed and hoping for a repeat of the scenarios in Egypt and Tunisia, where the militaries stepped in to depose the countries’ dictators after popular protests. Anti-Assad figures launched a public campaign to convince Habib to abandon the regime, calling on him to play a role in an interim government that would replace the Assad regime.

Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, said the opposition settled on Habib not only because he was defense minister but also because he had strong international ties from his time leading Syrian forces in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Most importantly, according to Ziadeh, the opposition had been in touch with a close family member of Habib, who had informed them that the army chief was dissatisfied with the Assad regime’s policies and might consider breaking from the government.

But the efforts came to nothing, Ziadeh said, as Habib soon found himself in conflict with Assad over the regime’s plans to violently put down the protests in Hama. "There was a discussion between him and Assad, and he accused Assad of repeating another Hama," Ziadeh said, referring to the 1982 massacre in the town of Hama that left an estimated 20,000 people dead. "And after that, there was no news about him at all."

Some observers thought it was curious that the opposition would go public with their calls for Habib to defect, suggesting that it would only heighten the regime’s suspicion that he could represent a threat. "It’s not very operationally intelligent," Hof said. "One’s life insurance policy may come into force very quickly if one gets that kind of spotlight."

Whatever the case, Habib was fired in August 2011. At the time, it was the largest shakeup in the Syrian government since the beginning of the revolt. He soon disappeared from the political scene, and rumors abounded about his fate. Syrian state media said he had stepped down because he had "been sick for some time, and his health has recently worsened." Some observers thought that Assad preferred his replacement, Dawoud Rajiha, because he was a Christian and therefore useful for shoring up his support within that community. Still others believed Habib had been killed: Syrian opposition websites reported that he had been found dead in his home one day after being dismissed, though he soon appeared on television to disprove those rumors.

Syrian opposition figures may have been willing to welcome Habib into the fold early in their war with the regime, but over two years and 100,000 dead later, their reception would likely now be chillier. "All these discussions about the people who are with Assad and could leave — it’s too late," Ziadeh said. "The situation is too complicated and too complex, it can’t be discussed in this way. The institutions have to be rebuilt."

The exiled opposition, however, might not have much of a choice. Their influence within Syria, which has always been meager, sustained another blow on Tuesday when Islamist and Free Syrian Army-affiliated rebel groups issued a statement saying that they do not recognize the opposition coalition or its interim government, and affirming that they want a political system where Islamic law is the sole source of legislation. In the event of a deal between Moscow and Washington, both the opposition and Assad could also come under pressure from their foreign patrons to accept a political transition, and quickly.

Moreover, there are signs that President Barack Obama is looking for a figure with Habib’s resume. In his speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama said that international powers opposed to Assad must persuade the opposition that "the Syrian people can’t afford a collapse of state institutions," and that a political settlement must address "the legitimate fears and concerns of Alawites and other minorities."

There aren’t many Syrian political figures who could accomplish that trick.

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