Fomer Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab, center, has reportedly… (Associated Press )
BEIRUT — Syria's prime minister reportedly defected Monday, a stunning blow to a government already reeling from severe security breaches, a war-ravaged economy, international isolation and pitched battles throughout much of the country.
Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab was in Jordan with his family, according to media reports.
"I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime, and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution," Hijab said in a statement read by his spokesman, Muhammed el-Etri, according to Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite network. "I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution."
Syria's official news media issued a terse statement saying Hijab had been "dismissed" from his post under President Bashar Assad and replaced by a caretaker premier.
Hijab's departure, combined with earlier defections and recent audacious strikes by the rebels, illustrates what appears to be a growing lack of confidence within the ruling elite that Assad can survive a rebellion that is now in its 17th month.
The development Monday "only reinforces that the Assad regime is crumbling from within," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. "The Syrian people believe that Assad's days are numbered."
A spokesman for Hijab said the former prime minister had been working to leave Syria "for months," in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army, the rebel umbrella group. He apparently had already made up his mind to leave the government when Assad named him prime minister in June. A pair of ministers and several generals reported accompanied Hijab out of Syria.
Syrian state media issued a statement from the finance minister, Mohammad Jleilati, denying that he had quit his post. The opposition suggested that the finance minister issued the statement under duress.
Hijab's apparent act of defiance continues a trend of abandonment by high-ranking Sunni Muslims who have served under Assad, a member of the Alawite minority offshoot of Shiite Islam. Last month, those abandoning Assad included two prominent Sunni officials: Nawaf Fares, Syria's former ambassador to Iraq, and Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, son of a former defense minister. Dozens of high-ranking Sunni officers, including many generals, have also defected.
Some have interpreted the escalating numbers as a deep fracture in the Alawite-Sunni alliance that has helped run Syria since 1970, when Hafez Assad, Bashar's father, took power.
The Assads' minority Alawite government has always had to rely on significant backing from elites of the Sunni majority. Alawites compose perhaps 12% of Syria's population, while Sunnis make up more than 70%.
Analysts say the government's core security and political leadership remain mostly in place, especially those from the Alawite sect, whose loyalty to Assad appears to remain deep. Alawites dominate the security apparatus. Many are said to view the current fight as a battle for the sect's survival.
Assad's government has been on the defensive since a bomb last month killed four of his top security aides, including his brother-in-law. On Monday, rebels again demonstrated their ability to infiltrate government institutions, apparently planting a bomb that detonated in the offices of state TV and radio in Damascus, the capital. No one was seriously injured in the blast, officials said.
Assad has not made a public appearance in weeks, fanning speculation that he fears for his safety. The president has been seen in several videos swearing in new commanders, and last week, in an essay written for Armed Forces Day, he urged his military to respond to threats.
The two previous high-profile defectors, Fares and Tlas, have been mentioned as possible leaders of a transitional government if Assad is ousted. Hijab could become another informal candidate to help run a post-Assad Syria.
Hijab was a longtime apparatchik of the ruling Baath Party who worked his way up through the system until he was named last year as governor of Latakia province, site of the ancestral Alawite homeland but also home to many disaffected Sunnis. Within a few months, Hijab had been promoted to agriculture secretary and then prime minister, signaling his status as a rising star in Assad's government. Still, Hijab is generally described as more of a technocrat and agricultural expert than a charismatic leader.
Western governments seeking Assad's ouster have bemoaned the lack of an opposition figure acceptable to governments abroad. The lack of such a leader in part reflects deep divisions within the Syrian opposition, which is composed of secular and Islamist factions, along with various ethnic, religious and political groupings. An opposition unity meeting in Cairo last month disintegrated into shouts and some delegates storming out of the room.
Whether rebels would accept as a leader someone like Hijab — who had collaborated with the government until recently — isn't known. Some in the opposition have already rejected any future role for Tlas — said to be a favored candidate of Saudi Arabia — both because of his record as a military man in Assad's service and his father's role in brutally suppressing an Islamist uprising in Syria during the 1980s.
Special correspondent Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.