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For Assad Defectors, Joining the Opposition Isn’t As Easy As It Sounds

AMMAN—Syria's former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who announced his defection from the Assad government Monday, is one of several high-ranking Syrian government officials to defect in recent months. But if it's increasingly clear that Assad officials are eager to separate themselves from the regime, it's not yet clear what role they will be able to play in the Syrian opposition.

For regime defectors, joining the FSA at all is an involved process. Mohammad Shakaki, an FSA member in Amman who coordinates healthcare services and aids Syrian soldiers in defecting to the FSA, told us that the burden is on defectors to alleviate the rebels' suspicions. For rank-and-file defectors, their clothing is first burned to destroy any concealed surveillance devices. Any weapons are then taken away from them, and they are interrogated at length on their past activities, with special scrutiny given to whether they were engaged in killing civilians or FSA soldiers. “We are afraid of spies,” he said.

Samer (he requested that his real name be withheld for security purposes), is an FSA member in Jordan who told us that there is a great fear among rebels of Assad sympathizers joining the FSA as a front to extract information for the regime. He describes how newly joined members have a trial period of one to three months in which they are strictly watched, and only after a full investigation are they trusted. When asked what happens to Assad moles found within the FSA, Samer merely pointed to the sky.

Even if defectors pass their probationary period, most find themselves funneled into a division of the FSA that has little to do with the major operations conducted by rebels untainted by an association with the Assad government. Only in rare instances are those from the former group allowed to integrate with the latter. Hijab will soon begin working with the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) media in Doha, Qatar, but most Syrian officials who defect to the FSA are not appointed to official positions within the opposition group.

The FSA’s concerns about subterfuge may partly be explained by the fact that they have spies of their own in the Assad regime. According to FSA members in Amman, there are many members of the Assad government who are unable to leave the country, but who assist the rebels from within the regime, helping to transfer weapons to the opposition and to provide intelligence on the Syrian Army’s logistics.

The FSA also tries to distinguish between those defectors who have been persuaded by the opposition’s cause, and those who are merely concerned about their own safety; for obvious reasons, the latter are considered much less trustworthy than the former. The FSA is very well aware that defections seem to be occurring at a faster rate over the past few months, as the opposition has gained ground in Syria.

According to activist websites, there had been a total of 41 high-level defectors before Monday, most of them having fled to Turkey where FSA fields their headquarters. (At least three other high-ranking Syrian security officials defected with Hijab on Monday to Jordan.) But Samer said the opposition is just as interested in the steady stream of lower-level regime soldiers. “There will be so many defections happening soon, to get ready for the next phase,” he said.

Given the heady international politics involved, the FSA is obliged to cooperate with other governments when dealing with high-level defectors. According to Ahmed Al-Massri, a political and media strategist affiliated with the FSA, activist groups that operate on the border are working to protect the defectors on their journey as they pass into Jordan. But the Jordanian government is also imposing its own form of asylum. They are providing mandatory living arrangements for Syrian defectors “for their protection.” While they are allowed to move freely, Al-Massri said that defectors must reside in the facilities, while family members often live in normal civilian apartments.

Several FSA members in Jordan say they think that with continued support from defectors and from the international community, Assad could be toppled in the next five months. The White House seems to concur. Spokesperson Jay Carney said that Hijab’s defection was “a sign that Assad’s grip on power is loosening.”

But if Assad is removed, there is concern among FSA members that the defectors who helped them topple the regime could be a source of friction when it comes to forming a new government. While most members of the FSA are Sunni, Samer says they will eventually have to reach some sort of accommodation with the supporters of the rebel cause who share the Assad family's Alawite ethnicity. Indeed, the FSA is well aware that there will be inevitable tensions, but they know they have no choice but to find a path forward.

“There will be trouble. It is the reality,” Shakaki says. “We have to fix a lot of things, but we are all for freedom.”

Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter @ErinBanco. Sophia Jones is a Ramallah-based freelance journalist and Overseas Press Club fellow. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_mjones.