AMMAN — The Cabinet on Thursday granted political asylum to a Syrian pilot who landed with his jet fighter in the Kingdom earlier in the day, according to a senior official.
A Syrian MiG-21 fighter jet landed at the King Hussein Air Base in Mafraq (70km northeast of Amman), Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications Samih Maaytah said on Thursday.
According to military sources, the plane was escorted by Royal Jordanian Air Force jet fighters soon after it entered the Jordanian airspace and was guided to the air base where it landed safely.
Meanwhile, Syrian state television named the pilot as Colonel Hassan Hamada, saying communications were lost with his plane while he was on a training mission near the border with Jordan.
Later in the day, Hamada was described as a traitor by the Syrian defence ministry, and the US welcomed the development, the first defection with a military aircraft since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Syria’s defence ministry called the pilot a “traitor to his country and his military honour”.
In a statement it said it would punish the man under military law. Syria was in contact with Jordanian authorities to retrieve the aircraft, it added.
The United States swiftly welcomed the defection of the Syrian fighter pilot and said he would not be the last person to do the “right thing” and desert Damascus’ armed forces.
Washington’s response came shortly after the Syrian government called the pilot of the MiG fighter plane a “traitor” and demanded the jet be returned after he was offered political asylum in Jordan.
“We welcome this pilot’s decision to do the right thing,” US National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told AFP.
“We have long called for the military and members of the Syrian regime to defect and abandon their positions rather than be complicit in the regime’s atrocities.
“This is just one of countless instances where Syrians, including members of the security forces, have rejected the horrific actions of the Assad regime, and certainly it will not be the last.”
The defection will boost the morale of the rebel movement fighting Assad at a time when government forces are intensifying efforts to crush the uprising and international peace efforts are stalled, Reuters said.
Thousands of soldiers have deserted government ranks in the 15 months since the revolt broke out and they now form the backbone of the rebel army. But unlike last year’s uprisings in Libya and Yemen, no members of Assad’s inner circle have broken with him.
Opposition sources said pilot Hamada is a 44-year-old Sunni Muslim from Idlib province and he had smuggled his family to Turkey before his dramatic defection.
His hometown Kfar Takharim has been repeatedly shelled in the past several months and suffered intense artillery and helicopter bombardments in the last few days, opposition campaigners who spoke to his family said.
Many air force personnel and army soldiers are from Syria’s Sunni majority, although intelligence and senior officers are largely Alawite, the minority sect to which Assad and his family belong and which forms their power base.
The most prominent defection so far in the conflict was that of Colonel Riad Al Asaad last July, who helped set up the rebel Free Syria Army after taking refuge in Turkey.
Last week Brigadier General Ahmad Berro, head of a tank unit in Aleppo province, fled with his family to Turkey.
Brig. Gen. Mostafa Ahmad Al Sheikh, who fled to Turkey in January, was the highest ranking officer to bolt. In late August, Adnan Bakkour, the attorney general of the central city of Hama, appeared in a video announcing he had defected.
In January, Imad Ghalioun, a member of Syria’s parliament, left the country to join the opposition saying the Syrian people are suffering sweeping human rights violations.
Though a boost to Assad’s foes, the pilot’s defection could complicate the international scenarios of a conflict that many governments fear could spill over Syria’s border and spread though the already volatile Middle East.
Ties between Jordan and Syria were already strained — Jordan has criticised Assad over his crackdown on the uprising but has been restrained in its rhetoric, according to Reuters.