Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) attends a dinner in honor of the army officers on the 65th Army Foundation anniversary in Damascus August 1, 2010. On left is Syrian Defense Minister General Ali Habib
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) with defence minister Gen Ali Habib (Reuters)

Syria's former defence minister Gen Ali Habib, one of the most prominent figure in President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, has allegedly defected and is now in Turkey.

If confirmed, the defection represents the highest-ranking figure to defect since the uprising began in March 2011.

"Ali Habib has managed to escape from the grip of the regime and is now in Turkey but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition," Kamal al-Labwani, senior member of the Western-backed opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said from Paris.

Habib, who was defence minister from 2009-11, has allegedly been smuggled out of Syria with the help of the United States.

Syrian state-run media said he was replaced as defence minister by Gen Dawoud Rajha for health reasons but reports at the time said that he was sacked after he refused to shell the restive city of Hama.

Habib could prove to be a major source of inside information on the Syrian regime.

"Habib has had a long military career. He has been effectively under house arrest since he defied Assad and opposed killing protesters," said Labwani.

But his defection might be part of the US strategy to resolve the Syrian crisis with a transition of power, Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, claimed. Such a strategy would include using a top Alawite officer like Habib who had not been involved in civilian bloodshed during the uprising.

The figure of Habib could also help ease American tensions with Russia. The general is also an old friend of the Saudis, said Hassan.

Habib participated in the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel, in which Syria failed to recapture the occupied Golan Heights, and in the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father and predecessor as president, symbolically joined a US-led coalition that ousted Iraq occupation troops from Kuwait.