Members of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle are secretly making plans to defect to the opposition should the Syrian regime become critically threatened by the rebellion, US officials have told The Daily Telegraph.
Senior military figures are understood to be laying down “exit strategies” and establishing lines of communication with the rebels to discuss how they would be received if they deserted.
On Thursday a Syrian air force colonel became the first senior officer to defect in an aircraft after he abandoned a mission to attack the city of Dera’a and landed his MiG 21 fighter jet in Jordan.
The Daily Telegraph understands that the pilots of three other MiGs on the mission also considered defecting, but were worried about being turned away.
Mr Assad is under intense pressure over the 15-month uprising, with world leaders considering offering the Syrian president an immunity deal to ensure he relinquishes power.
His government has so far managed to prevent the wave of diplomatic defections that heralded the fall of the Libyan dictator Col Muammar Gaddafi.
However, a senior US official in Washington said some of those closest to the Syrian leader were now preparing to flee. “We are seeing members of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle make plans to leave,” the official said.
This has even included moving large sums of money offshore into Lebanese and Chinese banks and making contact with opposition elements and Western governments.
Syrian opposition groups confirmed that they were actively courting American help to encourage more defections.
One senior opposition source said: “I know for sure there are some high-ranking officers who are waiting for the right chance to defect.
“We have names of people in the presidential palace. There are rumours that there is one who is really close to the president and we are expecting to see him out of the country soon.”
The defection yesterday of Col Hassan Merei al-Hamade raised opposition hopes that it could provoke the start of the exodus.
He was granted political asylum by Jordan only hours after landing his jet at the King Hussein air base in Mafraq, taking off his air force tags and kneeling on the tarmac in prayer.
The air force is considered fiercely loyal to the Assad regime and opposition activists said the escape of Colonel al-Hamade represented a sign that its growing international isolation was starting to test the military’s loyalties.
“He and three other MiGs were on a mission to bomb [southern rebel stronghold of] Dera’a. He has risked his life,” an activist told The Daily Telegraph.
“There was talk about defections, but the three other fighter planes did not because they were afraid and because they were unsure how they will be received in Jordan.”
The White House said the Obama administration “welcomed this pilot’s decision to do the right thing”.
Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokesman, said “This is how these things start. It is obviously a significant moment when a guy takes a $25 million plane and flies it to another country.”
But Syria’s defence ministry called the pilot a “traitor to his country and his military honour”.
More than 100,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since the uprising began, including military defectors who are kept in a compound for their own safety.
Brig Gen Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheik, who fled to Turkey in January, is so far the highest ranking Syrian officer to defect. In late August, Adnan Bakkour, the attorney-general of the central city of Hama, appeared in a video announcing he had defected.
Col Ahmed Nemaa, the head of the opposition forces in Dera’a, claimed that other senior figures were planning to follow suit, but had been told to stay put for the time being. “We have asked many military personnel who are planning to defect to stay within the Syrian army so we can use them at the right time. This includes some of the top commanders of Syrian army,” he said.
Opposition groups claim that the Assad regime has managed to prevent widespread defections with a carefully orchestrated campaign in which the families of diplomats and high-level figures are used to blackmail them to remain loyal.
Reports have emerged of the government running detention centres in Damascus where the family members of diplomats are being held under the watch of the mukhabarat, or secret police. Old laws requiring all military personnel to receive a stamp of approval from the mukhabarat before leaving the county, which until recently had been observed only in the breach, are now all being strictly enforced again, according to one source in Damascus.
Switzerland said yesterday it had been in contact with the team of Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, about hosting an international conference. It came after senior British sources said that Mr Assad could be offered safe passage to the country to take part in peace talks under a Western plan to convince him to relinquish his hold on power.
Elsewhere yesterday, the Syrian army maintained its bombardment of Homs even though a temporary truce had been agreed to allow aid workers to evacuate the sick and wounded. The International Committee of the Red Cross said its aid workers had been forced to turn back.
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