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Report: Former Syria defense minister defects to Turkey

Syria's President Bashar Assad attends a dinner with former Defense Minister Gen. Ali Habib in honor of the army officers on the 65th Army Foundation anniversary in Damascus in this Aug. 1, 2010 file photo.Reuters

Former Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Ali Habib, a prominent member of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, has defected and is now in Turkey, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition told Reuters on Wednesday. 

"Ali Habib has managed to escape from the grip of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition. I was told this by a Western diplomatic official," Kamal al-Labwani said from Paris. 

If his defection is confirmed, Habib would be the highest ranking Alawite figure to break with Assad since the uprising against his rule began in 2011. 

A Gulf source told Reuters that Habib had defected on Tuesday evening, arriving at the Turkish frontier before midnight with two or three other people. He was then taken across the border in a convoy of vehicles. 

U.S. intelligence officials said they have been unable to confirm the report that Habib had defected. Moreover, they said he has not been part of the “inner circle in some time.” He last held office in August 2011.

“Just because someone leaves Syria for Turkey does not mean he is joining the opposition,” said one official. The issue, he implied, could be personal safety.

Born in 1939, Habib was defense minister from June 2009 to August 2011 and has also served as chief of the General Staff of the Syrian Army. He is from the port city of Tartus.

Some opposition sources say that Habib disagreed with the use of force against protesters at the start of the revolt in 2011. Those sources say he was dismissed as minister for his opinion about the use of force. He later said he had left the post for health reasons.