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Aug 3, 2012 | 21:11 GMT

3 mins read

Syria: Another Defection Amid a Struggling Offensive

Syria: Another Defection Amid a Struggling Offensive

The deputy chief of Syrian air force intelligence in Deir el-Zour, Brig. Gen. Nasr Mustafa, defected to the Free Syrian Army on Aug. 2. On the same day, the Syrian army deployed additional reinforcements to Aleppo, Syria's largest city and economic capital, to help reclaim the city from the rebels.

The defection is significant because Mustafa is an Alawite — as is Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who needs unity among this religious sect to retain power. Losing Mustafa suggests the regime likewise may be losing control of its Alawite-dominated intelligence and security apparatus. Meanwhile, the regime may be growing more desperate as its offensive against Aleppo continues.

The battle for Aleppo began July 19 when the army launched its offensive, but the army has not been able to dislodge the rebels, who now claim to control more than 50 percent of the city. The army's offensive, however, has so far been more probative than aggressive in preparation for what looks to be a strong crackdown.

Clashes and Troop Movements in Syria

The regime has been sending reinforcements to Aleppo, redirecting troops positioned around the country, including Idlib province. In fact, a number of army convoys recently passed through the city of Arihah on the M4 motorway, which meets the major north-south highway at Saraqeb. (Because the motorway connects Jisr al-Shughour to Latakia, these convoys likely came from the Syrian coast.) From Jisr al-Shughour to Aleppo province, the convoys had to pass through rebel territory, where they were ambushed repeatedly despite having attack helicopters for protection.

The regime likely understands the risk involved in sending reinforcements to Aleppo. It also likely understands that redirecting troops to Aleppo puts supply lines located near Idlib, Homs and Rastan at risk from the rear. That the regime knew the risks associated with traveling through this territory indicates Aleppo's importance to the regime and the desperation with which the Syrian government is trying to reclaim the city.

The Syrian military is trying to relieve some of the pressure on their remaining forces within the city by striking at rebels in the countryside around Aleppo, a frequent regime tactic. If the regime's forces were to move on Aleppo in a meaningful way, they would have to do so soon, lest the rebels overrun their remaining forces in the city.

But while the regime musters more troops, supplies and heavy weaponry for Aleppo, members of its intelligence and security agencies continue to defect. Mustafa announced his defection Aug. 2, and although he was not a top-ranking general, he is an Alawite serving as the deputy chief of what many considered one of the intelligence branches most loyal to al Assad. As a result, his defection deals another blow to the Alawite-dominated regime.

His defection could also inspire other Alawite officers in Syria's elite intelligence agency to defect or desert their posts. Throughout the unrest in Syria — even as chaos has escalated in recent weeks — Alawite soldiers and intelligence personnel have largely stayed loyal to the regime. In fact, only a few Alawites have publicly defected. Because of the publicity surrounding Mustafa's defection, not to mention the visibility and importance of his post, others who knew him or who have been contemplating defection may be encouraged to follow suit.

Moreover, the defection casts some doubt on the Alawites' loyalty to the al Assad regime. Al Assad will now question who, even among his closest Alawite associates, he can trust. Given all the pressure and strain brought on by the rebellion, it is only a matter of time before someone else defects. Besides the challenges posed by rebels and jihadist factions fighting regime forces all over Syria, the regime faces a mounting crisis from within its security and intelligence apparatus. The outcome in Aleppo could determine the durability of the regime and its security forces in the near term.

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