Syria’s prime minister completed his defection by crossing into Jordan at dawn today after two days of hiding inside his homeland, according to Jordanian officials and a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army.
They described an operation which involved deceiving the media into reporting that Prime Minister Riad Hijab had already made it to Jordan so the Syrians would stop looking for him.
FSA spokesman Ahmed Kassem, who told the Associated Press on Monday that Mr Hijab had defected, said today that he had actually been inside Syrian territory for the past two days waiting to cross.
He said the rebels’ earlier statements to reporters were meant to “confuse the Syrian regime over the prime minister’s whereabouts”.
“Indeed, we pulled off the trick and luckily it worked,” Mr Kassem said in a telephone interview from his base in Turkey, which supports the rebels in the Syrian civil war.
“The Syrian army believed that the prime minister had already left Syrian territory and stopped looking for him,” he said. “That facilitated our plan to smuggle him out to Jordan.”
It was not immediately possible to confirm the account independently.
Jordanian officials, who on Monday gave conflicting accounts of whether Mr Hijab had already crossed the border, now say that the defection took place early today.
A security official said the FSA had notified Jordanian authorities that the defecting prime minister was on his way to the kingdom. He declined to say when.
“We co-ordinated closely to ensure his safe arrival,” said the security official.
Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah announced Mr Hijab’s arrival via the state Petra News Agency today, saying he crossed into Jordan at dawn. He declined to answer repeated calls by the AP.
Mr Kassem said Mr Hijab crossed with 35 family members, including his wife and children, his seven brothers and two sisters and their families. He said they were assisted by 400 trained FSA fighters, some of whom were Syrian army and police defectors.
He said Mr Hijab and his family crossed farmland from Syria’s Nassib border post to Jordan’s Sweilmeh village, about 1.2 miles (2km) east of the two countries’ official border crossing.
He said the new route was rarely used before and differed from the usual path for smuggling Syrian refugees into Jordan. That passageway, which cuts across olive groves, has recently seen Syrian gunfire on fleeing refugees. On July 28, a Syrian army sniper shot and killed a six-year-old boy as he and his family tried to escape to Jordan.
Mr Kassem said Mr Hijab and his family were driven in batches for about four miles (6km) from the southern Syrian village of Nueimeh to the Nassib border post. Then he walked 200 yards to the Jordanian border village of Sweilmeh.
The Jordanian security official said border guards were expecting him.
“He and his family were immediately whisked away from the border area,” he said.
The FSA also released a video showing a man in a dark suit and white shirt and identifying him as Mr Hijab. It claimed the video was shot in an undisclosed location in Nueimeh hours before he escaped to Jordan.
Mr Hijab’s defection is a humiliating blow for Syrian President Bashar Assad after a string of generals and ambassadors has peeled away. Like nearly all prominent defectors so far, Mr Hijab is a member of Syria’s majority Sunnis - the Muslim sect which forms the bedrock of the more than 17-month uprising.
His break suggests that elements of the Sunni elite – long a pillar of Mr Assad’s rule – could be growing uneasy with the relentless bloodshed and the hardline policies of Mr Assad’s minority Alawite community, which dominates the regime’s inner circle. The Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
But power remains closely held within Mr Assad’s inner circle and even posts such as the prime minister have limited clout.
Mr Hijab’s departure will not immediately undercut the regime’s ability to fight rebels in places such as Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which it has pounded with gunners and warplanes.