Syria’s state-run news SANA reports today that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad replaced defense minister Gen. Ali Habib and appointed army chief of staff Gen. Dawoud Rajha to the position. SANA said Habib stepped down because of health reasons.
The Obama administration had imposed sanctions on Habib — who is reportedly part of Assad’s inner circle — but opposition activists said including him on the list was unhelpful because it would discourage military defections. One London-based Syrian opposition spokesperson said the pro-democracy movement needed an army ally to help form an alternative to Assad’s government and that activists were looking to Habib:
Habib was a respected career military man with no known connections to Syria’s security forces and was believed to have an internationalist outlook. In 1991, General Habib led the Syrian troops who were sent to Kuwait to assist the United States in pushing out the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein, and he is thought to have good relationships with American and Arab leaders.
But most important, Mr. Ziadeh said, members of the National Initiative for Change have had secret discussions with members of General Habib’s family, and they have been told that General Habib is sympathetic to the protesters’ demands.
“We’re calling on Ali Habib to play a central and vital role in the transition of the country alongside members of the political opposition and the revolutionary movement,” Mr. Monajed said. “We are in discussions to name a proper shadow government and at the right time we will name this shadow government. In the meantime, we are calling for an interim government and a new election law.”
However, Micheal Weiss reported at Slate that Syrian activists believed that the White House sanctions made Habib’s viability as a transition figure very difficult.