Last updated: 6 August, 2012

Riad Hijab: From inner circle to soldier of Syria revolt

Riad Hijab, the Syrian prime minister who defected on Monday, was a staunch Baathist who rose through the party’s ranks before reaching the top thanks to his loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad.

Subdued and short on charisma, the 46-year-old Sunni Muslim holds a doctorate in agricultural engineering, but owes his steep ascent in Syria’s ruling party to his unwavering loyalty.

Hijab hails from Deir Ezzor in the east, where most tribes have joined the revolt, seen as a factor that swayed his decision to abandon the regime just two months after Assad tapped him to head the government.

It was there that he began his career in politics, as president of the Deir Ezzor branch of the National Union of Syrian Students, which he headed between 1989 and 1998.

He then held various senior positions within the Baath party until 2004 when he became its leader in Deir Ezzor.

In 2008, Hijab was entrusted with the job of governor for Quneitra, a sensitive role as it covers the Golan Heights most of which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.

He was named governor of the coastal province of Latakia in February 2011, about a month after the first pro-reform protests that Assad’s forces brutally crushed, triggering the bloody uprising.

Less than two months later, Hijab was on the move again when he was appointed agriculture minister.

It was a thankless task, however, as the embattled Assad regime had long favoured urban areas and the service sector but was now seeking to appease people in neglected rural communities.

Assad issued a decree appointing him as prime minister on June 6, a month after a parliamentary election boycotted by opposition groups and branded a farce by the West and many Arab states.

On Monday, a news banner on state television abruptly declared that “Prime Minister Riad Hijab has been dismissed.”

His spokesman announced soon after that Hijab had actually joined the rebellion in protest at the “genocide” that President Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, is carrying out against his own people.

“I announce my defection today from the regime of killing and terror, and I join the ranks of the revolt,” he said in a statement read by his spokesman Mohammed al-Otri on Al-Jazeera news channel from Amman.

He said his defection comes at a time “when Syria is passing through the most difficult war crimes, genocide, and barbaric killings and massacres against unarmed citizens.”

Hijab, the highest-ranking official to defect from Assad’s regime, has “become a soldier in the ranks of the soldiers of the revolt,” Otri said.

The defected premier, a father of four, was in a “safe haven” with his family and headed for Qatar.

Abdel Basset Sayda, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, hailed his decision, saying it showed Assad’s regime was “disintegrating.”

“This is a personality of national stature who is loved by all the people, not only Sunnis but Alawites and others as well,” said Mohammed Sermini, spokesman for the SNC coalition.

But two months ago at the time Hijab was appointed premier, the opposition said “it is the (Assad) clan that governs and there has been no real change” in the cabinet.