AMMAN, Jordan – Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab’s cloak-and-dagger defection began when he deceived his minders Sunday evening, telling them that he was attending a dinner to break the Ramadan fast at his brother’s house in Damascus. It continued for 48 hours with a far grander deception, his allies said: He hid in Syrian border town safe houses as artillery pounded outside, while leading the world and the regime to believe that he had already escaped.
Two days after Syrian rebels and Hijab’s spokesman issued headline-grabbing reports that he had defected to neighboring Jordan, the Jordanian government announced Wednesday afternoon that he and his extended family had, in fact, slipped across the border that morning.
In interviews Wednesday, rebels and the spokesman described the obfuscation as an intentional — and effective — twist in a sophisticated plot orchestrated by the rebel Free Syrian Army to dupe the Syrian regime.
“Because of the announcement of the defection, the shelling decreased, and so did the Syrians’ alertness,” Mohammad Otari, the spokesman, said in an interview at a hotel in Amman, the Jordanian capital. “The most important thing is that the prime minister, the head of government, has defected, regardless of when he reached Jordanian land.”
With that arrival, Hijab officially became the most senior Syrian government figure to abandon President Bashar al-Assad’s campaign to crush the ongoing civil revolt. His defection buoyed the spirits of rebel groups inside and outside the country, and it raised speculation that Hijab, a former agriculture minister whose supporters say he was forced to assume the premiership, could emerge as a unifying candidate to lead a transitional government in the event of an eventual regime collapse.
Jordan, which has strived to avoid angering its more powerful northern neighbor, provided no details on Hijab’s escape, other than to say he and his family had arrived in the early morning and were in a safe place in Amman. It was unclear whether the kingdom intended to led credence to the false rebel reports on Monday; anonymous Jordanian officials were quoted reporting the defection that day, but there was no official announcement.
Jordan has turned against its neighbors in the past and has given refuge to other defectors.
In 1995, the country opened its doors to Hussein Kamel al-Majid, an Iraqi general and son-in-law to Saddam Hussein, who brought with him revelations about Iraq’s biological weapons program. Kamel was killed in a 13-hour gunfight the next year after he returned from Jordan to Iraq with assurances that he would be forgiven.
Otari said that Hijab and his wife and children were staying in accommodations provided by the Jordanian royal court and that other relatives were in safe houses in Amman. He said the former prime minister was assessing the situation and would announce within days whether he would stay in Jordan or go to another country, such as Qatar or Turkey.
Also Wednesday, fierce clashes broke out between rebel fighters and government soldiers in the Salahuddin district in Aleppo, the commercial capital of Syria and its largest city. Government troops use Salahuddin as a transit route to the city center.
“Every kind of weapon is being used in Salahuddin,” Mohammed Said, an activist based in Aleppo, said in an interview conducted over the Skype online phone service.
Rebel commanders insisted that they were still in control of Salahuddin. But the government said its forces had swept the area and “inflicted heavy losses upon the armed terrorist groups,” the state news agency reported.
The Syrian military battered parts of the city with tank and artillery shells and blasted at least two neighborhoods with aerial bombs, according to opposition groups.
The neighborhood of Tadamon in Damascus, a long-standing flashpoint, was also shelled on Wednesday, as were a number of smaller cities. At least 141 people were killed across the country Wednesday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network.
At least 2,400 Syrians fled across the border to Turkey overnight, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported Wednesday. Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, on a visit to a refugee tent camp that Jordan opened last week, said 600 Syrians had crossed into the country the night before.
Among them, apparently, was the prime minister. Lt. Col. Yasser al Aboud, a Free Syrian Army commander who said he played a key role in the operation, said that more than 400 rebel fighters from Damascus and southern Syria were involved in the plan to get Hijab out but that only 20 knew the real identity of their passenger.
“We told them we have a very important hostage that we need to take out,” Aboud said.
In the days preceding the operation, rebel commanders discussed escape options with the prime minister, Aboud said. Lebanon was deemed a no-go because of the presence of Hezbollah, one of the Syrian government’s closest allies. Turkey was a possibility, but the border was far. The group eventually settled on Jordan, in part because the prime minister and his family could lay low in Deraa, only 10 miles from the border, as they calculated the best time to cross.
When the operation kicked off Sunday evening, Hijab left his official residence for his brother’s house in Damascus, where he persuaded his driver to leave, citing the long meal to come, Otari said. He and his relatives then went to two safe houses in the Damascus suburbs before heading south to Deraa, Aboud said.
Rebels soon received reports that government forces had ambushed a number of cars on the way to the border and set up extra checkpoints, leading them to believe that the government was tipped off about the defection.
Hijab was hunkered down in a suburb of Deraa, as the government bombarded the area, when the rebels decided to make a false announcement that he had already crossed. “We announced that he entered Jordan before he did as a cover because the regime had staged ambushes,” Aboud said.
“He said it was the hardest days that he has ever passed in his life,” Otari said.
When it appeared that the government assault had eased, false convoys were sent out from Deraa, Aboud said. He said Hijab and his family were moved to Noaima; Otari contradicted that, saying they were in Nassib, about five miles from the Jordanian border.
At 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the rebels called Jordanian authorities to tell them that Hijab’s party was on the way, Aboud said. About 9 p.m., Hijab and his relatives were separated into two groups and sent to separate border crossings.
Once across, Hijab was received by Jordanian intelligence and government representatives, Aboud and Otari said. Otari, a distant relative of Hijab, said he and two other relatives were also there to meet Hijab. He said Jordan was informed of Hijab’s impending arrival Sunday and kept his whereabouts in the interim secret. Jordanian officials could not be reached to confirm that.
“The first thing he did was thank God that he was saved from tyranny,” Otari said.
Otari said Hijab, 46, has no political ambitions, but he said Hijab would accept a leadership role if encouraged by the opposition. He said Hijab would make a statement intended for the Syrian public in the coming days and would probably seek to emphasize that he had “no role” in the Syrian security forces’ crackdown and that he is a dedicated civilian, one who tacitly supported the revolution from its start.
It could be a convincing message, particularly if Hijab says he would stand trial if any misdeeds were uncovered, said Omar Abdullah, 28, a Syrian activist in Amman who describes himself as a revolutionary.
“People have lost faith in the opposition being able to form any kind of [transitional government] that could get results,” Abdullah said. “If he presents himself as someone who is strong and accepts responsibility for his actions, that could be very good for him and for the situation.”
Dehghanpisheh reported from Beirut. Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.