Members of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s inner circle are covertly planing to defect and join the opposition should the Syrian regime become critically threatened by the rebellion, according to unnamed US sources in a report by The Daily Telegraph on Friday. The report could not be verified.

According to the report, senior Syrian military commanders have outlined “exit strategies” and are making direct contact with rebel forces to ensure that they will be welcomed and not persecuted.

The report follows a key defection on Thursday of a Syrian air force colonel. The colonel was the first senior officer to defect using an aircraft, after abandoning a mission to attack the city of Dera’a and landing his MiG 21 fighter jet in Jordan.

The Daily Telegraph also claimed that three other MiG pilots on the mission also considered defecting, but worried about how they would be treated.

The Syrian president is under intense pressure as he has been unable to stomp out the 15-month uprising, and world leaders considering offering him  immunity in exchange for stepping down. 

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The Syrian regime so far has headed off mass diplomatic defections as occurred in the fall of former Libyan dictator Col Muammar Gaddafi.

However, a senior US official in Washington told the Telegraph that, “We are seeing members of Bashar Assad’s inner circle make plans to leave."

The report indicates that the defectors' plans have gotten as concrete as moving large sums of money offshore into Lebanese and Chinese banks and making contact with opposition elements and Western governments.

Syrian opposition groups confirmed that they were actively courting American help to encourage more defections. One senior opposition source told the Telegraph that, “I know for sure there are some high-ranking officers who are waiting for the right chance to defect. We have names of people in the presidential palace. There are rumors that there is one who is really close to the president and we are expecting to see him out of the country soon.”

Thursday's defection of Air Force Col. Hassan Merei al-Hamade raised opposition hopes that it could provoke the start of the exodus.

General Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheikh said that up to 20,000 soldiers, mostly majority Sunni Muslims, had left despite "iron controls," although most were more focused on evading capture by the secret police than on fighting the security forces.

The revolt is likely to take longer than those that toppled the autocratic rulers of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia because Assad retains the loyalty of highly trained and well equipped forces from his minority Alawite sect, Sheikh said.

"If we get 25,000 to 30,000 deserters mounting guerrilla warfare in small groups of six or seven it is enough to exhaust the army in a year to a year-and-a-half, even if they are armed only with rocket-propelled grenades and light weapons," he said

Col. Ahmed Nemaa, the head of the opposition forces in Dera’a, claimed, int the report, that other senior figures were planning to follow suit, but had been told to stay put for the time being. “We have asked many military personnel who are planning to defect to stay within the Syrian army so we can use them at the right time. This includes some of the top commanders of Syrian army,” he said.

Opposition groups told the Telegraph that the Assad regime has managed to prevent widespread defections with a carefully orchestrated campaign in which the families of diplomats and high-level figures are used to blackmail them to remain loyal.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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