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In this undated photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA on Aug. 5, 2012, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, center, speaks under the portrait of the Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/SANA)

Syria watchers are trying to decipher the significance of the defection of Prime Minister Riad Hijab, just two months after he took the post. The Sunni Muslim is the most high-profile member of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated government to leave the country and join the opposition. The Assad government says he was fired. Daniel Serwer, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a scholar at the Middle East Institute, spoke with VOA’s Susan Yackee about the defection.

‘Losing your prime minister says something about your regime’

“The prime minister is not very important within the power structure in Syria, but when you’re losing your prime minister, it says something about your regime. What it says in this case, I’m afraid, is that the Sunni part of the regime is peeling off. Hijab is a Sunni, and the regime is dominated by Alawites. This is one more indication that sectarian conflict is coming to dominate the situation in Syria.”

The regime is coming apart’

“A defection of this sort encourages other defections among his friends and family. I certainly think he gives the impression, both inside Syria and outside, that the regime is coming apart.”

Sectarian conflict is ‘difficult to stop’

“The history of these things is that once sectarian conflict starts, it’s extremely difficult to stop. I know that many Syrians associated with the revolution don’t regard this as a sectarian conflict, and wouldn’t be happy with a sectarian conflict. But the fact is that people, when there’s violence, retreat into sectarian ethnic protection, and I anticipate that will happen in Syria as it has happened in many other places.”

It’s ‘hard to picture stability returning quickly’

“The most important thing at this point is to reach out as best the revolution can to Alawites, Christians and Druze who are still loyal to the Assad regime because they’re frightened of what will happen to them after the fact. I think the revolution has to reach out to them and try to bring them over. At the same time, I think the international community needs to be thinking very hard about what kind of effort to stabilize Syria will be required in the future. It’s very hard for me to picture stability returning quickly to Syria unless there’s external force applied.”

Listen to more of Daniel Serwer’s thoughts on the Syrian conflict’s future (3:30):

Susan Yackee

Susan Yackee is anchor of VOA's International Edition radio show. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.


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