A Syrian pilot defected to Jordan on Thursday, flying his MiG-21 fighter jet south across the border and seeking asylum at a Jordanian air base in the first such case involving a plane since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule began 15 months ago.
The defection came hours after the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, issued the most direct appeal yet to members of the Syrian security forces to abandon the regime and join the opposition. Though there is no indication that the pilot was responding to the appeal, posted on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, the defection was welcomed in Washington as a further sign of building discontent within the Syrian military.
"As you know, we have long called for members of the Syrian military to refuse to obey orders, to break with the Assad regime," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "And we'd like to see more of this."
The defection came on a day of surging violence across Syria, with human rights groups and activists reporting at least 96 deaths nationwide. Most of the deaths resulted from intense shelling of rebel strongholds in the provinces of Homs and Daraa as the Syrian army intensified a push to recapture areas that have fallen under rebel control.
In the Facebook posting, Ford issued a stark warning to the security forces that the United States intends to work with Syrians after the Assad government falls to track down those responsible for the violence and bring them to justice. He reminded them of the strenuous, 16-year effort to hunt down and bring to trial the Bosnian Serb army leader, Ratko Mladic. Members of the Syrian military should reconsider their support for a regime that is losing the battle," Ford wrote. "The officers and soldiers of the Syrian military have a choice to make. Do they want to expose themselves to criminal prosecution? Or do they want to help secure the role of the professional military in a democratic Syria by supporting the Syrian people?"
Jordan swiftly granted the pilot's asylum request, a move that risks increasing tensions between Amman and Damascus at a time when the escalating conflict is already drawing in regional players.