According to British daily The Guardian, Makdisi — a Christian who has long been loyal to the al Assad clan — was en route to the United States on Dec. 5. A day earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is the main propaganda media outlet for the Syrian opposition, claimed that members of the Syrian regime (though not al Assad himself) had pressured Makdisi to resign and that he and his family were traveling to London from Beirut's international airport. The U.S. and British governments have denied these reports, and Makdisi's whereabouts remain unconfirmed.
Makdisi is an important figure in the Syrian regime. His fluency in English and his public relations skills were instrumental in defending the regime throughout the uprising, including during particularly tense periods, such as when Syrian forces shot down a Turkish jet in June. Because he was such a valuable asset, the media has portrayed Makdisi's departure from Damascus as a psychological blow to the regime — precisely what the Syrian opposition intended. Makdisi's apparent defection does expose the weakening of the Syrian government overall. However, Stratfor has received indications that Makdisi's departure from Damascus was, in fact, facilitated by the regime and that he is on a diplomatic mission to negotiate a safe exit for the al Assad clan and guarantee the security of Syrian minorities in a post-al Assad Syria.
Makdisi would not be the first high-profile defector to be allowed to leave Syria in exchange for negotiating al Assad's immunity. Riad Hijab, who was appointed prime minister just two months before he defected to Jordan in August, has been central to the negotiations with Russia and the United States to provide a safe exit and immunity for al Assad. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad reportedly has not defected, but over the past week he has been holding meetings in Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador, presumably to seek out political asylum for the al Assad clan and its close associates.
The central question now is whether any of these diplomatic efforts will actually pay off. Western governments, including Washington, London and Paris, have stressed the need for a stable transition in Syria and a quick exit for al Assad, but they have also emphasized the need to bring al Assad and his associates to face the full force of international law and justice. Implicit in their calls to justice is the threat to send the al Assads to the International Criminal Court, but such threats directly undermine any negotiation designed to calmly extricate the al Assads from the political scene and pave the way for a transition. The al Assads will continue to see standing their ground on Syrian soil as preferable to banishment to The Hague.
But the stakes are rising in the conflict, as evidenced by rapid rebel advancements on the capital. The growing desperation among the al Assads likely explains the recent anxiety over the threat posed by Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. There have been recent signs that the regime has activated some of its chemical weapons units and may have even prepared some for use. Actually deploying these weapons would guarantee a foreign military intervention, which in turn would likely finish off the regime. Raising the threat of chemical weapons may be a last-ditch effort by al Assad to highlight the consequences of failing to secure his exit via diplomatic means.