A Syrian fighter pilot has flown his plane to a military air base in northern Jordan and asked for asylum, in what is believed to be the first defection by a Syrian air force pilot since an uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad broke out 16 months ago.
According to the BBC, the pilot, who has been named by opposition activists as Col Hassan Mirei al-Hamadeh, landed his Russian-made, Soviet-era MiG-21 at the King Hussein Air Base in the town of Mafraq, not far from the Syrian border, on Thursday morning. Jordanian officials told the BBC he had taken off from Syria’s al-Dumair air base, north-east of the capital, Damascus.
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According to The New York Times, Syria had kept its air force largely grounded until a few weeks ago, as the authorities did not want to give the impression they were no longer in control on the ground and also feared that the deployment of aircraft might trigger Western calls for the enforcement of a no-fly zone. In addition, there were fears that air force pilots – most of whom come from Syria’s Muslim majority, who are leading the uprising against Assad – might defect.
According to The Guardian, the pilot’s defection will likely further increase tensions between Syria and Jordan, who, as key trade partners, have tried to maintain normal business ties. Damascus has accused the authorities in Amman of supplying rebel forces with weapons, while Jordan’s King Abdullah has publicly questioned the legitimacy of the Assad regime on two occasions.
Among the 125,000 Syrian refugees that Jordan has received are hundreds of defectors from the police and military, who Syria is trying to get sent back via extradition, according to the Associated Press.