Faking Defections in Syria

Unlike in Libya where the intensification of violence was met with increased defections from the military and political core that surrounded Qaddafi, the government has been able to maintain a tight grip on its supporters. As I mentioned yesterday, the lack of defections in Syria has much to do with the strict sectarian split of the army (70-80% Alawite) as well as the familial ties with the Assad family of many political leaders. Additionally, without a safe area of the country to take refuge, defectors must choose between exile or running the risk of reprisals in government controlled areas. Lastly, most high level positions in the government and military are held by members of the upper class urban population that generally supports the government.

That does not mean that there have not been any (over the weekend 120 soldiers were killed in part by defecting army members), though the loyalty to the government has been strong throughout the protests. Interestingly, there have been at least two high level defections that have turned out to have been staged. The first, a lieutenant in the video above, claims to have seen all of the Syrian government crimes in Dera’a although there is reason to believe that the video was simply a bad acting job:

With all my respect, the video of the defector is fake. He looks very similar to the one who had been shown on channels more than month ago as a republican guard. His name is different. He said that he witnessed ALL the crimes and massacres of the regime from Deraa [sic] province up till the north! I mean, he was everywhere and all the time, and witnessed everything! Just check the video again @ 1:33, 1:43, 1:59, 2:04, 3:59, 4:07. In all these minuets, the guy looks at a paper in his hand downwards to have the names that he had to mention.

Perhaps more spectacularly is the faux-defection of the Syrian ambassador to France who announced unexpectedly during a telephone interview with France 24 that she was resigning, only to later on claim that she was never interviewed. The French news channel had gone through embassy procedures to secure an interview with Ambassador Lamia Shakkour and was given a cell phone number to call:

Philippe DiNacera, deputy editor at France 24, said Wednesday that the channel had called an embassy number to ask the ambassador to participate in a debate show.

He said they used a number they have used before, and were told by a man who said he was a political counselor to send an email with the request. The man responded, sent a photo of the ambassador and a cell number to use for a telephone interview at the given hour.

“We had no reason to question the identity of the person we were calling or to authenticate her declarations,” DiNacera said. “All the classic, professional procedures of inviting interviewees were respected.”

It seems like one thing to throw up a potentially fake resignation on Youtube, but, if the reports are correct, Shakkour’s fake resignation must have come from a source from within the Syrian embassy in Paris. France 24 is a popular and well respected news channel that – I assume – is not in the habit of faking interviews knowingly. That being said there are two aspects of this faux-resignation that push me to believe that this is not very politically significant. Firstly, whoever provided the false phone number is probably not a high ranking official in the embassy, but rather a junior member of the staff. Secondly, the embassy staff live in Europe where Assad’s reach is relatively short. To avoid punishment, the defecting source would simply need to stop attending work. Political and military figures inside of Syria do not have that same luxury.

Not including the hoax of a resignation from the Syrian ambassador, there have been only two high level political resignations since the beginning of the protests – one of whom, a member of Parliament, later withdrew his resignation. There has been speculation that there is a fundamental inability to resign due to the fear of reprisals against family members or possible imprisonment, underscoring the value for the opposition of a Syrian Benghazi. Without such a safe haven within the country, it is likely that we will see few important defections from the regime – and perhaps some more amusing fake ones.

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