Embattled Syrian opposition activists scored a propaganda coup Thursday, turning the purported defection of a little-known senior official in the Syrian government into a global event and underscoring the far-reaching impact of YouTube and social media in the struggle to topple the regime.
Abdo Hussameldin, who said he was a deputy minister, announced his defection in a strongly worded, carefully scripted video, accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of leading a "criminal regime" and urging other officials to abandon "a sinking ship."
The video, posted Wednesday, almost instantly eclipsed other Syrian news – including U.S. President Barack Obama's stated aversion to unilateral military intervention and the visit by a United Nations envoy to the shattered remnants of a Homs neighbourhood abandoned by defeated rebels after weeks of shelling.
"After suffering a military setback, I think the opposition was looking for a success," said a close observer of the region who maintains contacts with Syrians inside the country and abroad.
But he, like numerous other Syria-watchers, wasn't familiar with nor recognized the defector, who identified himself as a deputy minister in the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources..
"I have joined the right path, knowing that this regime will burn down my house, hunt down my family and fabricate lies," Mr. Hussameldin, wearing a suit and reading from a prepared statement in Arabic, said while seated in a grey chair in a yellow-painted room that provided no indication of its location.
As with much of the news trickling out of violence-ravaged Syria, where more than 7,500 people have been killed in a year of mounting protests and ever-tougher crackdowns, neither the authenticity of the video nor the location where it was filmed could be immediately confirmed.
The New York Times, however, reported that a prominent Syrian dissident named Eiad Shurbaji recognized the defector as Mr. Hussameldin, with whom he had worked in the oil ministry in 2004 and 2005. The paper quoted Mr. Shurbaji, now living in the United States, as describing the defector as "a clean person [who]became aware where things are heading in Syria."
Mr. Hussameldin's message was politically savvy, aimed at sowing dissent inside the regime, boosting morale among the opposition and painting some major powers as part of the problem. He lambasted Russia and China, veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, for blocking resolutions authorizing tougher action against Damascus. Both the Chinese and Russian governments are "partners in the killing of the Syrian people," he said.
The significance of the defection may rest more with the propaganda value of the widespread distribution of the video and the attention it garnered rather than any particular importance attached to Mr. Hussameldin. There are scores of officials in the Assad regime holding the rank of deputy minister.
Still the international media attention may reverberate back into Damascus. While Syria's government-controlled media made no mention of it, the opposition clearly hopes for a reprise of the steady stream of defections that sapped the last vestiges of credibility from the Libyan regime last summer.
The Obama administration was cautious. "If in fact it's true that the deputy oil minister of Syria has defected … it would be very good news indeed," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
In Syria to date, no senior military figures have joined the ill-equipped and poorly organized rebel forces. More important, no complete units and in particular no elite units, have switched sides. In Libya, such shifts tipped the military balance against Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's ruthlessly repressive regime last year.
In late August, Adnan Muhammad al-Bakkour, the attorney-general of the province of Hama, declared on YouTube he had resigned in protest against the suppression of street demonstrations and the storming of the city of Hama by tanks. But Mr. al-Bakkour has not been heard from since and some opposition sources say the video was made under pressure from rebels.
Calls for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, meanwhile, have gone unheeded and opposition sources reported renewed bombardments by government forces in some cities. The latest outsider to issue a rebuke to Mr. al-Assad was Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general recently named a special envoy. He is expected in Damascus on Saturday for a meeting with Mr. al-Assad, and this week said: "The killing has to stop."