A Tale of Defection: The Story of Syrian Major General Abdulaziz al-Shalal

Dominic Kalms – Militant Leadership Monitor – Vol. I, issue 4, 2013

In a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood action movie, Syrian Major General Abdulaziz al-Shalal snuck across the Syrian border into neighboring Turkey on the night of December 21, 2012, trekking across the dangerous Cilvegozu border and the town of Reyhanli in Turkey’s southern Hatay province (Hurriyet Daily News [Istanbul] December 27, 2012).

The journey lasted four days and involved the use of motorcycles, scooters and horses as well as a steep climb through mountainous terrain. It was a risky move, fraught with deadly ramifications if something went awry, yet he had decided that he could no longer participate in the Assad regime’s despotic campaign to exterminate Syrian opposition fighters and he believed defection was his only way out alive.

Major General Shalal headed the military police division of the Syrian Army and was responsible for ensuring that military officers did not defect to the opposition. He was also responsible for overseeing the units that guarded the prisons where political dissidents and rebels were held (Times of Israel, December 27, 2012). While the Syrian government has downplayed his position, calling him a figurehead who Militant Leadership Monitor Volume VI u Issue 1 u January 2013 was near retirement and only wanted to play hero, the reality is much different (Arab News [Saudi Arabia] December 26, 2012). The general is reportedly the highest-ranking officer to defect and one of Syria’s top military, security and intelligence officials (Arab News [Riyadh] December 26, 2012). He was not a member of Assad’s inner circle, however, and his religious background as a Sunni Muslim indefinitely blocked him from reaching the top echelons of the Syrian government, which is composed entirely of Alawites. The defection of Major General Shalal has nevertheless been an embarrassment for the Assad regime and a blow to its public image.

Major General Shalal is not a well-known figure and information on his background is extremely scarce (Daily News Egypt, December 26, 2012). Though he was highly ranked in the Assad regime, several Syrian government officials have stated that he was pushed to the sidelines a long time ago, as a result of rumors that he was collaborating with insurgents (Daily News [Egypt], December 26, 2012). This story seems to be corroborated by the al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, which reported in December 2012 that rumors had been circulating in Damascus that Shalal was contributing to the rebel cause from within Assad’s military (Times of Israel, December 27, 2012). Shalal has confirmed that he had engaged with the rebels and in early December, 2012 he met with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), where he discussed his plans to defect from the Assad regime. In fact, negotiations for the general’s defection had been ongoing for months and according to Louay Mokdad, the political coordinator for the FSA, the general had tried to defect several times before but had been prevented for fear of being caught (TurkishNews.com, December 27, 2012).

After the general and his family arrived in Turkey on December 25, 2012, he immediately put out a statement on al-Arabiya TV, in which he methodically laid out his reasons for defection, starting with his most compelling reason; the Syrian government’s deviation from its mission to protect the nation and its transformation into “gangs of murder and destruction” (Daily News Egypt, December 26, 2012).

While Shalal is now an active member of the FSA, his defection reveals much about his character and motivations. Shalal waited 22 months into the Syrian civil war before he defected to the rebels after the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had already put the death toll in Syria at 60,000 from the conflict (United Nations Dispatch, January 2). General Shalal not only participated in some of these atrocities, but took an active role in guarding rebel dissidents, the same men and women with whom he is now partnering. Many of his fellow rebels have not forgotten ¬this fact; in an interview Captain Adnan Dayoub, a rebel commander in Hama, said that General Shalal had been responsible for prisons—“God knows how many”—and was almost certainly guilty of war crimes (The New York Times, December 26, 2012).

From his allegiance to the Assad regime, to his role as a prison guard, to his willingness to sit atop the Syrian military for 22 months during the civil war, it seems that General Shalal is no revolutionary freedom fighter, but rather a shrewd and calculating government official, who realized that if he did not defect he risked being dragged before a war tribunal if the Assad regime collapsed. Looking at his defection from a historical standpoint, it seems remarkably overdue and in reality the general was one of the last high ranking Sunnis in the Assad government. In fact 54 senior military and security officials, three cabinet members, four members of parliament and thirteen diplomats had already defected since the start of the revolution in Syria, long before the general decided to leave (SES Türkiye, January 1, 2013).

While some analysts have stated that the general’s defection is “one of the most important,” in reality his defection seems to be remarkably consistent with what occurred in Syria over the past several months. Rather than being a courageous dissident, his actions reveal a man who is following the trend.

In the weeks leading up to the general’s defection, several high ranking Sunnis had fled, notably Sunni Brigadier General Munaf Tlass and Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab (al-Arabiya [Saudi Arabia] December 26, 2012). General Shalal appears to have been following his predecessors.

General Shalal may have defected to preserve his life, protect his family and ensure his freedom. While the FSA and Syrian National Coalition (SNC) embrace him now, it is uncertain how long the welcome will last; as Syrian rebel commander Captain Dayoub recently told The New York Times in an interview, General Shalal “is contaminated from top to bottom…[but] tomorrow he will be a hero” (December 26, 2012).

Ultimately, the General’s fate will rest in the hands of the SNC and FSA, and their chosen method of transitional justice. If the post Assad government embarks on truth and reconciliation tribunals, such as those in post-Apartheid South Africa, then the General will certainly remain free.

If the post Assad government engages in Lustration, as in post-Soviet Czech Republic, then the General will also remain free. However, if the next Syrian government decides to prosecute Assad loyalists and government officials, as was the case in post-genocide Rwanda, then it is possible General Shalal will be brought before a national tribunal Militant Leadership Monitor Volume VI u Issue 1 u January 2013 for his crimes committed during and before the uprising.

While there is great ambiguity in the General’s future, it is clear that the General has now been embraced by the Syrian opposition and his knowledge and understanding of theAssad regime’s inner workings will be exploited by the rebels, and just maybe that will be enough to save him from future prosecution.

Dominic Kalms is an analyst specializing in Middle East and Latin American national security affairs. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University.