By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Amena Bakr
AMMAN/DOHA (Reuters) – Former Syrian Defence Minister General Ali Habib, a prominent member of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect, has defected and is now in Turkey, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition told Reuters on Wednesday.
If his defection is confirmed, Habib would be the highest ranking figure from the Alawite minority to break with Assad since the uprising against him began in 2011.
It comes at a time when forces loyal to Assad have made progress against the rebels on the battlefield but face the possibility of a U.S. military strike in response to a chemical weapons attack in Damascus for which Washington blames the Syrian leader.
“Ali Habib has managed to escape from the grip of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition. I was told this by a Western diplomatic official,” Kamal al-Labwani said from Paris.
Syrian state television denied Habib had left Syria and said he was still at his home. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said he could not at the moment confirm Habib had defected.
A Gulf source told Reuters that Habib had defected on Tuesday evening, arriving at the Turkish frontier before midnight with two or three other people. He was then taken across the border in a convoy of vehicles.
His companions were fellow military officers who supported his defection, the source said. They were believed to have also left Syria but there was no immediate confirmation of that.
Labwani said Habib was smuggled out of Syria with the help of a Western country.
“He will be a top source of information. Habib has had a long military career. He has been effectively under house arrest since he defied Assad and opposed killing protesters,” Labwani said.