As events surrounding the UN upgrade of Palestine into a no hog dominate the headlines, developments in Syria are not getting the attention it should. Yesterday was a dramatic day for the country: Jihad Makdissi, a foreign ministry spokesman who was the most public face of Bashar Al Assad’s government, defected and fled the country; the rebel fighters shot down a MiG warplane in Damascus province that had been bombing rebel strongholds; the United Nations said it is preparing to evacuate all non-essential staff from Syria and the White House expressed concern that the beleaguered regime might be considering use of chemical weapons against its own people.
The UN is preparing to evacuate all non-essential staff from Syria and put those who remain in the country on standby to move to places of safety due to the precarious security situation. The UN’s under-secretary for safety and security, Gregory Starr, announced that the organisation had also cancelled all missions to Syria from abroad and suspended its activities inside the country.
There are clear indications that the fighting in Syria is entering a decisive, and most probably, the final phase. The defection of the foreign ministry spokesman comes after a long gap and is an indication of the ground reality. Assad was able to crack down on defections after several such high-profile cases in the beginning of the uprising and Jihad Makdissi’s exit shows Assad is fast losing his grip. More defections are expected in the coming days as fighting intensifies and Assad’s forces fail to hold their ground.
Makdissi’s defection is significant for the simple reason that he belongs to Syria’s Christian minority, which has largely stood behind Assad. He worked with the foreign ministry for ten years and speaks fluent English, a rarity in a state apparatus shaped by the Baath Party’s anti-Western ideology. He was rarely seen in the media in recent weeks. According to reports, Makdissi had left Beirut and was on his way to London, where he was expected to remain.
The latest developments in Syria demand an urgent response from the international community, especially Arabs. It is time for the opposition and their foreign supporters to plan the transition in the country and closely monitor Assad and his forces to make sure he doesn’t resort to mass killing of his people. The regime has said that it would not use chemical weapons, but a ruler like Assad who is being ousted can’t be expected to behave with sanity and kindness during his last days in power.
There is a need to bring the uprising to its logical conclusion. Russia and China, who have been supporting Assad, need to rethink their strategy and throw their weight behind the people.