Syrian PM's defection 'beginning of end'

Riyad Hijab Riyad Hijab is believed to have fled Syria with his family

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The defection of Syria's Prime Minister Riyad Hijab has provoked mounting speculation about the fate of President Bashar al-Assad both in the regional press and in that of Russia and China, Syria's main international allies.

'Gaddafi's last days'

In the influential London-based pan-Arab press, most commentators see the end fast approaching.

Ali Ibrahim in the Saudi-owned daily, al-Sharq al-Awsat, compares the Syrian leader to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. "President Bashar Assad himself seems to be completely blind to the fact that the regime's ship is sinking," he writes. "These people refuse to see that, with a growing number of senior executive officials and military officers defecting, and ever larger swathes of the country no longer under government control, the regime has actually entered a phase very much like that which characterised Gaddafi's last days."

Al-Quds al-Arabi agrees that Mr Assad should be seriously worried. "We do not think that Assad will sleep peacefully over the next few days," editor Abdel Bari Atwan says.

Tariq al-Hamid in al-Sharq al-Awsat considers the possible effect on Iran, Syria's only ally in the region. "How will the situation in Iran unfold without the terrorist lung in the region that is Assad's regime? How will Tehran deal with a new government in Syria that refuses to be subservient to Iran and sees it as its main enemy?" he asks. "The fall of Assad will be akin to a political earthquake for Iran."

But Ilyas Harfush in the Saudi-owned al-Hayat says Mr Hijab was not from President Assad's inner circle. "It is no exaggeration to view the defection of Prime Minister Hijab as merely symbolic. The defections that might give the regime a wake-up call would be from the inner circle - that is Assad's family and the Alawite sect, or security officials who oversee the implementation of the military's orders on the ground."

'Collapsing from within'

Comment in local Arab papers also provides little comfort for the Syrian government.

Rafik Khoury in Lebanon's independent daily, al-Anwar, says the rate of defections in Syria is "growing like a snowball". Despite the protestations of the Syrian government that Mr Hijab is "just a name like others, it is hard to ignore the symbolic significance of the defection of the head of the government and what it means as a painful moral blow to the regime after the bombing of the National Security Bureau" in Damascus in July, Mr Khoury adds.

In Jordan's al-Ghad, Bassim al-Twaisi also states that the NSB bombing and the recent defections are signs that the "regime is collapsing from within".

In Qatar, where the government vocally supports the Syrian opposition, al-Rayah agrees. An editorial appeals to President Assad to step down and spare his people any more suffering. "This defection is only the beginning of the inevitable end of the Syrian regime. It has lost control of Syria and it should admit this fact. Everyone has started to realise that Assad's days are numbered and that the Syrian people will not allow him to stay in power. He should realise the truth and work to put an end to the bloodshed and the daily massacres before it is too late," it says.

'Post-Assad planning'

Elsewhere in the region, Israeli pundit Avi Issacharoff in the liberal daily, Haaretz, says the government is disintegrating. "The Syrian regime is in a rapid process of disintegration, and the desertion of the prime minister, Riyad Hijab, strongly illustrates this - what we have here is a personal appointee of the president, a figure who is supposed to implement his policy without ever disagreeing with him."

Abdulhamit Bilici in Turkey's pro-government newspaper, Zaman, says other governments are thinking about what will happen after Mr Assad goes. "The prime minister changing sides is a sign that the end of the regime is very much nigh. As there have been many signs of this, preparations for the post-Assad period have speeded up. Possible scenarios are being worked on in the event of the regime collapsing... regarding the regional balance."

'Army still loyal'

However, commentators in pro-government media in Russia and China, which have blocked several UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, brushed off Mr Hijab's flight.

In Russia's Vedomosti business daily, Middle East analyst Yevgeny Satanovsky warns against drawing hasty conclusions, saying: "The defection of officials during a civil war is a regular event." He adds that the army has "regained control over Damascus", while its slow progress in Aleppo is the result of "treading with caution rather than the success of the rebels".

Wu Bingbing of Peking University meanwhile tells Shanghai's Jiefang Ribao (Liberation Daily): "The defecting official fled alone and did not take a single soldier... The most important pillar of the current Syrian regime, the armed forces, still swears allegiance to Bashar, which is in stark contrast to the Libyan crisis."

In Russia's influential Kommersant business daily, however, Pavel Tarasenko sees little cheer for Assad. "The Syrian prime minister is the highest-ranking defector so far," he writes. "The list of those who are refusing to support President Bashar al-Assad's regime is growing ever more impressive."

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad. For more reports from BBC Monitoring, click here

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