Syrian Pilot Granted Asylum In Jordan, C.I.A. Directs Weapons To Rebels
The defection of Col. Hassan Hammadeh has exposed fractures in the Syrian Air Force, which has been seen as fiercely loyal to Assad, especially since Assad's own father was an Air Force officer. Gen. Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese officer and expert on the Syrian military, called the defection a "psychological blow to the regime."
“This signals the erosion of the regime’s capacity to use all its forces, the idea of sending planes is no longer an option, neither against an internal or an external enemy,” General Hanna said.
From the New York Times:
President Assad’s air force is one of the largest in the Middle East, with nearly 500 warplanes, nearly 200 training aircraft and nearly 200 helicopters, according to a tally compiled by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research group. The authorities were also reluctant to give the impression that they had lost control on the ground, analysts said.
But this spring the use of the Air Force was increased, particularly helicopters to attack rebel holdouts and to counter improvements in the rebels’ limited firepower.
In the conflict with armed rebels, Syria’s government had avoided using the air force until recent weeks, fearing its deployment might prompt Western calls for a no-fly zone.
Jordan's information minister confirmed that the pilot had defected. But the defection may complicate Jordan's efforts to stay out of the neighboring conflict.
From the Associated Press:
The defection is a sensitive issue for Jordan, which wants to avoid getting dragged into the Syrian conflict. Jordan already has taken in 125,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army and police defectors, and Syria is seeking their return.
Syria is one of Jordan's largest Arab trade partners, with bilateral trade estimated at $470 million last year.
The Syrian regime has been hit with defections before, although none as dramatic as the fighter pilot's. Most have been low-level conscripts in the army.
While Jordan tries to limit its involvement in the conflict, the United States is beginning to funnel arms to select rebel forces through C.I.A. officers operating in Turkey. The weapons include automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons.
According to the New York Times:
American officials and retired C.I.A. officials said the administration was also weighing additional assistance to rebels, like providing satellite imagery and other detailed intelligence on Syrian troop locations and movements. The administration is also considering whether to help the opposition set up a rudimentary intelligence service. But no decisions have been made on those measures or even more aggressive steps, like sending C.I.A. officers into Syria itself, they said.
The move to arm rebel forces comes as the international community, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are increasing pressure on Russia to stop assisting the Syrian military. Arab League Deputy General Secretary Ahmed Ben Hilli criticized Russia as being complicit in the deaths of Syrian civilians.
"I can say that any assistance in violence should be stopped, because when you supply military equipment, you are helping to kill people,” Ben Hilli said. “This must be stopped.”
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