BEIRUT — A Syrian pilot defected to Jordan on Thursday, flying his MiG-21 fighter jet south across the border and seeking asylum at a Jordanian air base in the first such case involving a plane since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule began 15 months ago.
The defection came hours after Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, issued the most direct appeal yet to members of the Syrian security forces to abandon the regime and join the opposition.
Though there is no indication that the pilot was responding to the appeal, posted on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, the defection was welcomed in Washington as a further sign of building discontent within the Syrian military. “As you know, we have long called for members of the Syrian military to refuse to obey orders, to break with the Assad regime,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “And we’d like to see more of this.”
The defection came on a day of surging violence across Syria, with human rights groups and activists reporting at least 96 deaths nationwide. Most of the deaths resulted from intense shelling of rebel strongholds in the provinces of Homs and Daraa, as the Syrian army intensified a push to recapture areas that have fallen under rebel control.
In the Facebook posting, Mr. Ford issued a stark warning to the security forces that the United States intends to work with Syrians after the Assad government falls to track down those responsible for the violence and bring them to justice.
Jordan swiftly granted the pilot’s asylum request, a move that risks increasing tensions between Amman and Damascus at a time when the escalating conflict is already drawing in regional players.
After becoming one of the first Arab leaders to support calls for Assad to step aside last summer, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has since sought to lower his kingdom’s profile in the Syria crisis, amid concerns that Mr. Assad’s fall could trigger widespread instability in Jordan.
It was unclear whether the defection of a lone pilot, identified by Syrian government media as Col. Hassan Mirei al-Hamadeh, signified anything beyond a case of individual disgruntlement.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency initially reported that he had gone missing on a training flight. But after Jordan announced that it had granted the pilot’s request for political asylum, the agency denounced him as “a deserter and a traitor to his country,” and said he would be “punished accordingly.”
The Syria conflict began as a peaceful uprising but in recent months has evolved into a full-blown conflict between Mr. Assad’s forces and rebels fighting as the Free Syrian Army.
A Free Syrian Army spokesman, Col. Malik Kurdi, called Col. Hamadeh a hero “who shared in the suffering of the Syrian people and expressed his rejection of the tyranny practiced by the regime.”
Speaking by phone from the Free Syrian Army’s de facto headquarters in a southern Turkey refugee camp, he said Col. Hamadeh was from the mostly Sunni province of Idlib, a Free Syrian Army stronghold, and that many more pilots would like to defect, “but there are strict measures and a lot of controls on them.”
The Syrian air force has largely sat on the sidelines as Mr. Assad’s army has acted to crush the revolt.
But Col. Hamadeh’s flight underscored the steady trickle of defections daily around Syria, usually in small groups numbering no more than a few dozen.
Source: Washington Post