Jordan has granted political asylum to a Syrian fighter pilot who defected by flying his jet across the border today, the Washington Post reports. The fighter pilot was on a training mission when he flew his MIG-21 warplane into Jordan seeking asylum.
Tens of thousands of soldiers have defected from the Syrian army but this is the first defection of an air force pilot during the current 15 month long uprising against President Bashar Assad. The air force is considered to be incredibly loyal to Assad’s regime and this defection suggests even Assad’s most trustworthy allies have become dubious.
The defection came just hours after U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford posted an open plea urging the Syrian military to abandon their posts and join the opposition. He warned that those that do not could be prosecuted for war crimes if Assad’s government fails.
“Members of the Syrian military should reconsider their support for a regime that is losing the battle,” Ford wrote on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. “The officers and soldiers of the Syrian military have a choice to make. Do they want to expose themselves to criminal prosecution by supporting the barbaric actions of the Assad regime against the Syrian people? Or do they want to help secure the role of the professional military in a democratic Syria by supporting the Syrian people?”
He goes on to site precedent, comparing this regime to the Balkans and the International Criminal Tribunal that was formed to hunt down war criminals.
“There are parallels to the Syria case in the Balkans. In 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICYT) was created to bring to justice those accused of atrocities in the Balkans conflicts. The ICTY indicted 161 people – military and civilian – from foot soldiers to municipal employees to military officers at all levels to heads of state for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity against non-combatants and combatants. The charges against them ranged from directly targeting civilians, mistreating individuals (detained combatants and civilians) in custody, terrorizing the civilian population, using disproportionate force against military objectives, and forcing the deportation or displacement of the civilian population.”
Ahmed Kassem, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, said they encouraged the pilot to defect and followed his activity until the jet landed safely in Jordan.
In a statement, the Syrian Defense Ministry said: “At 10:34 a.m. Syria time we lost contact with a MiG-21. The pilot onboard was Colonel Hassan Mare’ei Hammadeh was on a routine sortie [in] southern Syria. Pilot Hamadee is considered a deserter who betrayed his country and his military honor. We will follow the usual procedures adopted in such cases. We will request from Jordanian authorities to return the aircraft.”
Jordan, who is not involved in the Syrian conflict and wishes to keep it that way, was at first hesitant to accept the refugee. Jordan officials have said that they ultimately decided to accept him because his safety was not guaranteed if he were returned home, possibly facing torture or execution for his desertion.
According to CBS News, Jordan has taken in over 125,000 refugees since the crisis and Syria is actively seeking their return. The two are frequent and long-term trade partners, with trade estimated at $470 million last year.