DOHA/AMMAN (Reuters) - Bashar al-Assad's former defense minister has reached Istanbul after a defection that betrays cracks in the president's support among his own Alawite sect, opposition and diplomatic sources said on Thursday.
Dismissing a cursory Syrian state television denial of the first Reuters report that General Ali Habib had been spirited across the Turkish frontier this week, opposition figures said Habib was likely to keep a low profile after evading house arrest and reaching Turkey with the aid of Western agents.
One prominent opposition figure also spoke of speculation that Habib, who is in his 70s and apparently broke with Assad after a crackdown on protesters in 2011, might be lined up by U.S. and Russian officials for a role in transitional arrangements to negotiate an end to the civil war.
While Washington and Moscow are fiercely at odds over U.S. plans for military action, international powers all say they see such a longer-term political settlement as vital for peace.
"My information, based on a trusted Western source, is that he is in Istanbul," veteran dissident Kamal al-Labwani, now based in Paris, told Reuters on Thursday. "Habib exited with Western intelligence involvement, so do not expect public statements by security operatives on his whereabouts."
A source in one of the Gulf Arab states that is backing the revolt against Assad said Habib had crossed Turkey's southern border after dark on Tuesday and had reached Istanbul, a base for the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition.
A Western diplomatic source said he had confirmation that Habib had defected and was in Turkey. He dismissed a brief report on Syrian state television on Wednesday which said he was still at his home. The station has not repeated that denial and other state media have not mentioned Habib.
The television did not identify Habib's home. The general comes from the town of Safita, near the port of Tartous in the Alawite heartland along the coast between Lebanon and Turkey.
The Turkish government, which hosts facilities for Syrian military officers who have defected, has not confirmed the general's presence. He has not been seen in public this week.
Numerous senior military and political figures have deserted Assad since 2011. But most have been from the country's Sunni Muslim majority, particularly as the civil war has taken on more sectarian aspects, with Sunnis even from the wealthier classes complaining of domination by Assad's minority Alawites.
The defection of Sunni officers has failed to cripple the core of the Syrian security forces, in which Alawites play a leading role. But the flight of Habib confirms other reports of disillusion among the Alawites, who fear Assad's hard line risks sectarian reprisals that could destroy their community.
"His defection will rattle the Alawite community," another military defector said. "It will be seen as another man jumping off a sinking boat, indicating the coming fall of the regime."
Many Alawites, however, seem willing to fight for Assad, fearing that his removal will be disastrous for them.
An offshoot of the Shi'ite Islam practiced in Iran, Assad's main sponsor, Alawites make up about an eighth or so of Syria's 22 million population. Many rose to prominence following the seizure of power in a military coup in 1970 by Assad's late father, Hafez al-Assad. Habib, born in 1939, was once chief of staff of the army and served as defense minister in 2009-11.
While many rebels are bent on removing the Assad clan and their Alawite allies from all influence in Damascus, one of the few things squabbling international powers have agreed on is a need for compromise that would give all the main parties to the war an incentive to end what has become a bloody stalemate.
Coopting leading Alawites to back a post-Assad transitional administration could be one element in securing agreement.
Some opposition sources say that Habib disagreed with the use of force against protesters at the start of the revolt, which began in March 2011, and so he was dismissed as minister that August. Apparently unwilling to publicize the rift, Assad kept Habib quietly under guard while having him appear in public at times to make a show of loyalty, those sources said.
Habib himself was quoted as saying that he had stepped down from the defense ministry on health grounds.
Labwani said he could play a part in efforts to end the war:
"It seems that the Americans - and to a degree the Russians - are preparing him for a post-Assad role," he said, describing one possibility as Habib taking control of government forces and then negotiating with the rebels on a transitional government.
"I am all for this roadmap," Labwani said. "Habib is the right man."
Russia and the United States announced in May they would try to bring Syrian government and opposition representatives together at an international conference, but no date has been set and there is no sign it could be held in the near future.
Accusing Assad of using poison gas last month on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, U.S. President Barack Obama is seeking congressional approval for limited military action that the White House says is not aimed at overthrowing the government.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has long armed Assad, has said rebels might have released the toxins and warned Obama against military action without U.N. backing.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean in Beirut; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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