NEW YORK — Syria’s embattled leadership suffered a new setback Wednesday with the publicly broadcast defection of its military police chief, the highest-ranking officer to abandon President Bashar Assad since the uprising against him began nearly two years ago.
The defector, Major General Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, announced his move in a video broadcast by Al Arabiya, saying that he had taken the step because of what he called the Syrian military’s deviation from ‘‘its fundamental mission to protect the nation and transformation into gangs of killing and destruction.’’
Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab broadcaster critical of the Syrian government, first broadcast the video late Tuesday, and opposition figures have confirmed its authenticity, saying the general was somewhere in Turkey.
They said that Shallal’s defection had been arranged weeks ago through tribal elders in Syria and that the effort to smuggle him across the border, over several days, included a four-hour motorcycle ride.
Turkey has been the main destination point for Syrian military defectors, and many of them have regrouped there to join the Free Syrian Army, the main insurgent force fighting Assad.
Reading from a prepared statement while sitting at a desk, dressed in a camouflage uniform with red epaulets, the general did not specify in his message when he had decided to defect but said that he had been ‘‘waiting for the right circumstances to do so.’’
While the defection was broadly embraced by opposition figures as a major blow to the government, the general, a Sunni Muslim, was not believed to be a member of the president’s inner circle of advisers. Over the course of the conflict, despite welcoming thousands of defectors, the opposition has failed to attract figures seen as critical pillars of the government or any members of the ruling Alawite minority of Assad, the sect regarded as the backbone of the military.
Nonetheless the general’s denunciation of the Syrian military was at the least a new embarrassment to Assad, further undermining his repeated assertions that the uprising against him is basically the work of terrorists and their foreign collaborators.
Shallal’s statement came as Syrian insurgents said they made territorial gains against Assad in the northern and central parts of the country and as a special envoy from the United Nations and the Arab League was visiting Damascus as part of an effort to reach a political settlement that would halt the conflict, the most violent of the Arab Spring revolutions that began in the winter of 2010-2011. More than 40,000 people have been killed since protests against Assad began in March 2011.
There has been speculation that the special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, presented Assad with proposals for relinquishing his authority and possibly leaving the country. Assad, whose Alawite minority has ruled Syria for more than four decades, has consistently said he will not leave the country.
Dozens of lower-ranking Syrian military officers and hundreds of soldiers have fled Syria over the past two years. Shallal, the head of the military police division of the Syrian army, is the highest-ranking military defector so far. He outranked Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, a boyhood friend of Assad’s, who fled in July.