The opposition at the time was still unarmed and hoping for a repeat of the scenarios in Egypt and Tunisia, where the militaries stepped in to depose the countries' dictators after popular protests. Anti-Assad figures launched a public campaign to convince Habib to abandon the regime, calling on him to play a role in an interim government that would replace the Assad regime.
Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, said the opposition settled on Habib not only because he was defense minister but also because he had strong international ties from his time leading Syrian forces in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Most importantly, according to Ziadeh, the opposition had been in touch with a close family member of Habib, who had informed them that the army chief was dissatisfied with the Assad regime's policies and might consider breaking from the government.
But the efforts came to nothing, Ziadeh said, as Habib soon found himself in conflict with Assad over the regime's plans to violently put down the protests in Hama. "There was a discussion between him and Assad, and he accused Assad of repeating another Hama," Ziadeh said, referring to the 1982 massacre in the town of Hama that left an estimated 20,000 people dead. "And after that, there was no news about him at all."
Some observers thought it was curious that the opposition would go public with their calls for Habib to defect, suggesting that it would only heighten the regime's suspicion that he could represent a threat. "It's not very operationally intelligent," Hof said. "One's life insurance policy may come into force very quickly if one gets that kind of spotlight."
Whatever the case, Habib was fired in August 2011. At the time, it was the largest shakeup in the Syrian government since the beginning of the revolt. He soon disappeared from the political scene, and rumors abounded about his fate. Syrian state media said he had stepped down because he had "been sick for some time, and his health has recently worsened." Some observers thought that Assad preferred his replacement, Dawoud Rajiha, because he was a Christian and therefore useful for shoring up his support within that community. Still others believed Habib had been killed: Syrian opposition websites reported that he had been found dead in his home one day after being dismissed, though he soon appeared on television to disprove those rumors.
Syrian opposition figures may have been willing to welcome Habib into the fold early in their war with the regime, but over two years and 100,000 dead later, their reception would likely now be chillier. "All these discussions about the people who are with Assad and could leave -- it's too late," Ziadeh said. "The situation is too complicated and too complex, it can't be discussed in this way. The institutions have to be rebuilt."
The exiled opposition, however, might not have much of a choice. Their influence within Syria, which has always been meager, sustained another blow on Tuesday when Islamist and Free Syrian Army-affiliated rebel groups issued a statement saying that they do not recognize the opposition coalition or its interim government, and affirming that they want a political system where Islamic law is the sole source of legislation. In the event of a deal between Moscow and Washington, both the opposition and Assad could also come under pressure from their foreign patrons to accept a political transition, and quickly.
Moreover, there are signs that President Barack Obama is looking for a figure with Habib's resume. In his speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama said that international powers opposed to Assad must persuade the opposition that "the Syrian people can't afford a collapse of state institutions," and that a political settlement must address "the legitimate fears and concerns of Alawites and other minorities."
There aren't many Syrian political figures who could accomplish that trick.