* Hijab dismissed only after he defected -Jordanian source
* Like other defectors, Hijab is a Sunni Muslim
* Premier's position largely powerless
* Control remains with Assad's Alawites
* Syria forces attack in frontline Aleppo district
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Aug 6 Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab
has defected to the opposition seeking to overthrow President
Bashar al-Assad, a spokesman for Hijab said on Monday, marking
one of the highest profile desertions from the Damascus
Syrian state television said Hijab had been fired, but an
official source in the Jordanian capital Amman said he had been
dismissed only after he fled across the border with his family.
"I announce today my defection from the killing and
terrorist regime and I announce that I have joined the ranks of
the freedom and dignity revolution," Hijab said in a statement
read in his name by the spokesman, which was broadcast on Al
Jazeera television. "I announce that I am from today a soldier
in this blessed revolution."
Syrian state television reported Hijab's dismissal as
government forces appeared to prepare a ground assault to clear
battered rebels from Aleppo, the country's biggest city.
The opposition Syrian National Council said a further two
ministers and three army generals had defected with Hijab. That
assertion could not immediately be verified.
Hijab was a top official of the ruling Baath party but, like
all other senior defectors so far from the government and armed
forces, he was also a Sunni Muslim rather than a member of
Assad's Alawite sect, which has long dominated the Syrian state.
"Hijab is in Jordan with his family," said the Jordanian
official source, who did not want to be further identified. The
source said Hijab had defected to Jordan before his sacking.
Assad appointed Hijab, formerly agriculture minister, as
prime minister only in June following a parliamentary election
which authorities said was a step towards political reform but
which opponents dismissed as a sham.
Hijab's home province of Deir al-Zor has been under heavy
Syrian army shelling for several weeks as Assad's forces try to
dislodge rebels from large areas of countryside there.
Syrian television said Omar Ghalawanji, who was previously a
deputy prime minister, had been appointed to lead a temporary,
caretaker government on Monday.
Assad and his father, who was president before him, have
consistently appointed premiers from the majority Sunni
community. However, the position is largely powerless and
control has remained with Assad, his family and security chiefs
from the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
"Defections are occurring in all components of the regime
save its hard inner core, which for now has given no signs of
fracturing," said Peter Harling at the International Crisis
"For months the regime has been eroding and shedding its
outer layers, while rebuilding itself around a large, diehard
fighting force," he said. "The regime as we knew it is certainly
much weakened, but the question remains of how to deal with what
it has become."
Earlier in the day, a bomb blast hit the Damascus
headquarters of Syria's state broadcaster as troops backed by
fighter jets kept up an offensive against the last rebel bastion
in the capital.
The bomb exploded on the third floor of the state television
and radio building, state TV said. However, while the rebels may
have struck a symbolic blow in their 17-month-old uprising
against Assad, Information Minister Omran Zoabi said none of the
injuries was serious, and the channel continued broadcasting.
Rebels in districts of Aleppo visited by Reuters journalists
seemed battered, overwhelmed and running low on ammunition after
days of intense shelling of their positions by tanks and heavy
machinegun fire from helicopter gunships.
Emboldened by an audacious bomb attack in Damascus that
killed four of Assad's top security officials last month, the
rebels had tried to overrun the Damascus and Aleppo, the
country's commercial hub, near the Turkish border.
But the lightly armed rebels have been outgunned by the
Syrian army's superior weaponry. They were largely driven out of
Damascus and are struggling to hold on to territorial gains made
in Aleppo, a city of 2.5 million.
Damascus has criticised Gulf Arab states and Turkey for
calling for the rebels to be armed, and state television has
described the rebels as a "Turkish-Gulf militia", saying dead
Turkish and Afghan fighters had been found in Aleppo.
Paralysis in the U.N. Security Council over how to stop the
bloodshed forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, his
ceasefire plan a distant memory.
The violence has already shown elements of a proxy war
between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam which could spill beyond Syria's
border. The rebels claimed responsibility for capturing 48
Iranians in Syria, forcing Tehran to call on Turkey and Qatar -
major supporters of the rebels - to help secure their release.
On Monday, Syrian army tanks shelled alleyways in Aleppo
where rebels sought cover as a helicopter gunship fired heavy
Snipers ran on rooftops targeting rebels, and one of them
shot at a rebel car filled with bombs, setting the vehicle on
fire. Women and children fled the city, some crammed in the back
of pickup trucks, while others walked on foot, heading to
relatively safer rural areas.
The main focus of fighting in Aleppo has been the
Salaheddine district. One shell on Sunday hit a building next to
the Reuters reporting team, pouring rubble on to the street and
sending billows of smoke and dust into the sky.
State television said Assad's forces were "cleansing the
terrorist filth" from the country, which has been sucked into an
increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed about 18,000
people and could spill into neighbouring states.
The army appeared to be using a similar strategy in Aleppo
to the one used in other cities where they subjected opposition
districts to heavy bombardment for days, weakening the rebels
before moving in on the ground, clearing district by district.
Syria's two main cities had been relatively free of violence
until last month when fighters poured into them, transforming
the war. The government largely repelled the assault on Damascus
but has had more difficulty recapturing Aleppo.
Rebel commanders say they anticipate a major Syrian army
offensive in Aleppo and one fighter said they had already had to
pull back from some streets after army snipers advanced on
Saturday under cover of the fierce aerial and tank bombardment.
"The Syrian army is penetrating our lines," said Mohammad
Salifi, a 35-year-old former government employee. "So we were
forced to strategically retreat until the shelling ends," he
said, adding the rebels were trying to push the army back again.
Late on Sunday rebels clashed with the army in Aleppo's
southeastern Nayrab district, a fighter who called himself Abu
Jumaa said. The army responded by shelling eastern districts.
There were also clashes on the southern ring road, which could
be a sign the army was preparing to surround the city.
Once a busy shopping and restaurant district where residents
would spend evenings with their families, Salaheddine is now
white with dust, broken concrete and rubble.
Tank shell holes gape wide on the top of buildings near the
front line, and homes of families have been turned into
look-outs and sniper locations for rebel fighters.
Large mounds of concrete are used as barriers to close off
streets. Lamp-posts lie horizontally across the road after being
downed by shelling.
Civilians trickle back to collect their belongings and check
on their homes. Late on Saturday, a confused old man stumbled
into 15th street as rebels exchanged fire with the army.
"Get out of the way! Get off the street!" fighters shouted,
grabbing him and taking him to shelter.
"I just wanted to buy some blackberry juice," he told the
fighters, his face reflecting confusion and horror at the damage
to his street. Instinctively, he took his personal ID card out
of his chest pocket to show the rebels, a habit from the strict
days of the Assad security officials.
During the day, others emerged from damaged buildings. A
couple stood shaking with fear at an intersection a few metres
from the fighting as a medic waved a car down to take them to
"Just to hold power he is willing to destroy our streets,
our homes, kill our sons," wept Fawzia Um Ahmed, referring to
Assad's determined counter-offensive against the rebels.
"I can't recognise these streets any more."
Assad is supported by Shi'ite Iran and Lebanon's armed
Shi'ite Hezbollah movement.
But the Sunni-ruled Muslim Gulf Arab states have called for
rebels to be armed and Turkey has provided them with a base,
angering Damascus and prompting Syrian state television on
Sunday to refer to the rebels as a "Turkish-Gulf militia".
It said the bodies of Turkish and Afghan fighters had been
found in Aleppo, without giving details.
On Sunday Syrian rebels said they were checking the
identities of the captured Iranians to show that Tehran was
involved in fighting for Assad, a rebel officer said.
Iran says the captives were pilgrims visiting holy sites in
Syria, abducted from a bus in Damascus.
A senior Syrian intelligence officer defected to Jordan, Al
Arabiya television reported on Sunday. It said Yarub Shara was
head of the Damascus branch of Political Security, an
intelligence organisation responsible for monitoring and
In Damascus, residents said the bodies of six Palestinians
arrested during a security sweep by the army in the southern
Tadamon district were discovered on Sunday. Another nine men
were missing, they said. Accounts from the capital could not be
verified because the government restricts access.