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The battle for Syria one town at a time

Rebel forces launch a new military campaign in parts of northwest Syria, in a battle for control of the strategic region of Idlib.

PT1M7S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2bydk 620 349

BEIRUT: Syria's government suffered another embarrassing setback as the senior general responsible for preventing defections within the military became a defector, making what insurgents described on Wednesday as a daring back-roads escape by motorcycle across the border into Turkey.

The commander of the military police, Major-General Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, was one of the highest-ranking officers to abandon President Bashar al-Assad in the nearly two-year-old uprising.

His departure, reported by Al Arabiya on Tuesday and confirmed on Wednesday, came as a flurry of diplomatic activity suggested the possibility of movement towards a political solution to the Syrian crisis. A deputy Syrian foreign minister flew to Moscow for meetings at the Kremlin. The United Nations envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who met Mr Assad in Damascus this week, also plans to visit Moscow.

Announcing his defection ... Major-General Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal.

Announcing his defection ... Major-General Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal. Photo: Supplied

Russia, which is one of Mr Assad's strongest supporters, has suggested it is open to a negotiated transition that would ease Mr Assad out of power.

Members of the Syrian opposition said General Shallal's defection had taken weeks to prepare and ended with a four-hour sprint by motorcycle through forest and muddy roads to the Turkish border.

In a video broadcast by Al Arabiya, the general said he had taken the step because the military had deviated from its mission to protect the country and had transformed into ''a gang for killing and destruction. The regime army has lost control over most of the country'', he said.

Opinions differed among rebel commanders about how much power the general had held in Syria. One commander said he was a member of Mr Assad's ''crisis team'' of top military, security and intelligence officials. But a rebel commander in Hama, Captain Adnan Dayoub, said General Shallal was responsible for prisons and was almost certainly guilty of crimes. ''He's contaminated from top to bottom,'' the captain said. ''Tomorrow he will be a hero.''

On Wednesday Syria's wounded Interior Minister cut short his treatment at a Beirut hospital and returned home for fear of being arrested by Lebanese authorities.

Mohammad al-Shaar, who was wounded in a suicide bombing on December 12 in Damascus and taken to Beirut for treatment a week ago, left the hospital early and returned to Damascus on a private jet, officials at Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport said.

A Lebanese security officer said Mr Shaar was rushed out of Lebanon after authorities received information that international arrest warrants could be issued against him.

The New York Times, Associated Press