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Friday, June 22, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

Syrian air force colonel's defection a blow to Assad

By RICK GLADSTONE and ALAN COWELL
The New York Times

Syria's government was jolted Thursday by the first defection from its elite air force in the 16-month uprising, when a colonel commandeered a Soviet-era MiG warplane and flew to neighboring Jordan, where he sought and received political asylum.

The pilot was identified as Col. Hassan Hammadeh, and his defection raised questions about whether fealty to President Bashar Assad was fraying in the air force, the military branch regarded as closest to the Assad family, which has controlled Syria for four decades.

Assad's father, Hafez, was an air-force officer.

Hammadeh, like most Syrian pilots, belongs to the Sunni Muslim majority, which forms the backbone of resistance to Assad and his governing Alawite sect. Nearly all commanding officers in the air force are Alawites, and the defection generated speculation that Sunni pilots would face new restrictions on any flying missions.

"The air-force defection is not insignificant," said Aram Nerguizian, a scholar of the Middle East and North Africa and a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It is deeply embarrassing for Assad."

There have been other defections and desertions from the Syrian military, mostly by army conscripts, many of them now members of the Free Syrian Army, the amalgamation of armed groups fighting to overthrow Assad. But no Syrian Air Force pilots had been known to defect, and in such a flamboyant fashion.

The defection was reported as anti-Assad activists said fighting had escalated across the country. The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, said a convoy trying to reach Homs had been forced to turn back by gunfire, delaying the effort to evacuate sick women and children.

The state-run Syrian media reacted with outrage at the defection. SANA, the official news agency, said Hammadeh had been on a training flight, and it quoted a Defense Ministry statement as saying he was "a deserter and a traitor to his country and military honor and will be punished accordingly." The ministry also demanded the return of the plane.

Jordan's information minister, Sameeh Maaytah, said the pilot made an emergency landing at a Jordanian air base and asked for political asylum, which was granted after a Cabinet meeting.

Weighing such a request presented awkward complications for Jordan, which has sought to avoid becoming ensnared in the conflict in Syria, an important trading partner. By some estimates, more than 50,000 Syrians are in Jordan, many refugees from Assad's campaign to crush the uprising that began as a peaceful political protest in March 2011.

Jordanian authorities did not allow outside access to Hammadeh, and his location was not clear.

It also was unclear where Hammadeh's flight had originated. An anti-Assad activist reached in Syria, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the pilot flew into Jordan after refusing orders to bomb targets in Syria. The activist did not reveal the source of that information.

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