Highest-ranking Syrian civilian official, Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hussameldin, announces on YouTube that he is joining the “revolution of this dignified people” • Putin denies rumors that Russia is planning to grant asylum to Assad • U.N. under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, visits Homs but reportedly promises not to meet opposition leaders.
Daniel Siryoti, Yoni Hirsch and Reuters
Deputy oil minister, Abdo Hussameldin announces his change of side. [Screenshot]
Photo credit: Youtube
Syrian Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hussameldin has announced his defection on YouTube, making him the highest ranking official to abandon President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising against his rule erupted a year ago.
“I Abdo Hussameldin, deputy oil and mineral wealth minister in Syria, announce my defection from the regime, resignation from my position and withdrawal from the Baath Party. I join the revolution of this dignified people,” Hussameldin said in a YouTube video uploaded on Wednesday and seen early on Thursday.
“I say to this regime: you have inflicted on those who you claim are your people a whole year of sorrow and sadness, denying them basic life and humanity and driving Syria to the edge of the abyss,” he said, adding the country’s economy was “near collapse.”
The authenticity of the video, which was taken at an undisclosed location, could not be immediately confirmed.
Assad appointed Hussameldin, 58, to his position through a presidential decree in 2009.
“I have been in government for 33 years. I did not want to end my career serving the crimes of this regime. I have preferred to do what is right although I know that this regime will burn my house and persecute my family,” Hussameldin said.
Until now, public defections have remained rare among the civilian branches of the state. Assad’s opponents attribute this to the tight control of the secret police and the fear of retribution against the families of any would-be defectors. They point to what they say are several killings by Assad’s forces of family members of high profile defectors from the military.
Thousands of mostly Sunni soldiers and conscripts, who make the bulk of the army, have deserted since the uprising broke out last March, with more officers deserting in the past months, although Assad still retains control of the main forces.
In another video posted on YouTube on Tuesday, a high-ranking army officer announced his defection from Syria’s military and said he joined rebel forces in objection to shelling of his hometown.
Adnan Qassem Farzat said in the video he felt compelled to desert the military because the intensified bombardment of rebel-held areas “are not the values of the Syrian army.” The authenticity of the video could not be verified.
If confirmed, Farzat would be the second brigadier-general to defect - the highest rank of officers to abandon Assad’s forces, most of whom have remained loyal to the president, fighting what he says are foreign-backed terrorists. Brigadier-general is the fifth-highest rank in the Syrian army.
Farzat said he was from Rastan, a besieged rebel stronghold in Homs province, where the crackdown on the uprising against 40 years of Assad family rule has been especially fierce.
“I am the Brigadier-General Adnan Qassem Farzat ... from the people of the city of Rastan and I announce my defection from the Syrian military and that I have joined the Free Syrian Arab Army,” said the bespectacled Farzat, believed to be in his mid-fifties.
He held up an officer identification card but it did not specify his rank. His hometown was one of the first towns to fall briefly into rebel hands though it has been retaken by the army several times and has been heavily battered by fighting.
“I informed some commanders that Rastan is being hit by artillery fire, and in spite of this the bombardment continued violently. Houses have been destroyed and women and children have been killed. These are not the values of the Syrian army and for this reason I am defecting.”
At least a third of those killed in security forces’ crackdown on the uprising are believed to be in Homs.
Meanwhile, in what may be another blow to Assad, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Moscow isn’t discussing granting political asylum to the Syrian president, shooting down rumors that such an offer is on the table as a way to end the Syrian regime’s deadly crackdown on opposition protesters.
Russia has protected Assad from U.N. sanctions over the crackdown and accused the West of fueling the conflict by backing the Syrian opposition.
Putin, who is currently prime minister but regained the presidency in an election Sunday, said “we aren’t even discussing the issue” of granting asylum to Assad.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will travel to New York to take part in Monday’s ministerial meeting of the U.N. Security Council that will discuss Syria and other Mideast issues, the Foreign Ministry said.
Putin has chided the West for refusing to demand that Assad’s opponents pull out from besieged cities along with government troops.
The Foreign Ministry on Tuesday dismissed Western hopes for a shift in Moscow’s stance on Syria after Putin’s election victory as “wishful thinking.” The ministry reaffirmed Wednesday that Russia remains firmly against any foreign military intervention in Syria.
“Any attempts by foreign players to enforce their models of settlement by supporting only one party to the conflict are unacceptable,” it said in a statement.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul, meanwhile, reiterated his country’s harsh criticism of Assad, warning that “those who are running Syria must make a choice now. The road they have taken is absolutely a dead-end street. It is dark and full of disappointment.”
“That’s why they have to give an ear to the efforts of the international community. As you know there are some formulas proposed. If they don’t say yes to those today, it will be too late tomorrow,” Gul said, without elaborating.
Late Tuesday, Spain said it has closed its embassy in Syria to protest the crackdown, a decision it said it made after consulting with fellow European Union members.
Spain said it will keep two diplomats in the EU delegation in Damascus to handle its interests. Spain recalled its ambassador to Syria last month.
Britain, Canada, France and the United States also have announced the closures of their embassies in Syria.
Meanwhile, after denying international organizations access to the embattled city of Homs for several weeks, the Syrian government allowed U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos to visit cities that have been under siege by forces loyal to Assad on Wednesday.
Amos said the Baba Amr district was devastated by the recent shelling and almost devoid of people, a spokeswoman for Amos’ office said on Wednesday. “[Amos] said that security was obviously an issue, and they heard gunfire while they were there,” said Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “The parts of Baba Amr that they saw, she said they were pretty devastated.”
Syria had initially failed to grant Amos access to the country but relented after Damascus’ allies Russia and China joined the rest of the U.N. Security Council in a rare rebuke of Syria for not allowing Amos into Syria.
On Feb. 29 a statement by U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., Susan Rice, said “It is shameful that the Syrian government has denied UN Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos admission to Syria, as promised. The Under-Secretary-General should have been able to negotiate urgently needed humanitarian access for relief organizations to operate safely in the midst of desperate shortages of food, medical care and basic necessities. Rather than meeting the needs of its people, the barbaric Syrian government is preparing its final assault on the city of Homs. Meanwhile, food shortages are reported to be so severe that people, especially children, will soon start dying of hunger. Water and electricity have been cut. Doctors, aid workers and journalists continue to be targeted. Even the Syrian Red Crescent has been prevented by Syrian forces from evacuating the injured. The Assad regime’s callous disregard for the needs of its people is not surprising, but it is reprehensible.”
According to the official Syrian state news agency, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem met Amos and told her, “Despite sanctions imposed on Syria by Arab countries, we are making an effort to provide humanitarian assistance and medical care for every citizen in the country. We will cooperate with any U.N. representative and any delegation sent by the U.N.”
Amos is the first major international figure to visit Baba Amr since the government launched its latest assault on Homs. Syrian rebel fighters fled Homs recently after nearly a month of shelling by government forces.
Amos reportedly promised Muallem that during her visit in Syria she would not meet with opposition leaders.
According to Red Crescent officials in Syria, Amos joined a convoy that entered the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs. Red Crescent representative Hisham Hassan was quoted by Arab media agencies as saying that “Baba Amr is a ghost city. Most residents left or escaped.”
Human rights groups reported on Wednesday that government troops killed at least 45 people in the country in the past 24 hours, including 13 people who were executed in Homs after an improvised field trial.
The U.N. estimates that more than 7,500 civilians have died in the government’s nearly year-long crackdown on anti-Assad demonstrators around the country.
The joint U.N.-Arab League envoy on the Syria conflict, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is due to arrive in Syria on Saturday.