BEIRUT – An air force pilot landed his MiG-21 fighter at a Jordanian airbase Thursday, becoming the first Syrian airman to defect with his warplane since the rebellion against President Bashar Assad began 15 months ago.

Jordan granted political asylum to the pilot and planned to debrief him, the government said.

The incident was an embarrassment and a symbolic blow for Assad, whose government is locked in a bloody struggle against a determined insurgency

The Syrian Air Force — once commanded by Assad’s late father, Hafez Assad, himself a former fighter pilot — has been regarded as especially loyal to the government.

The state-run Syrian press bureau issued a strongly worded statement denouncing the pilot — identified as Col. Hassan al-Hamada — as “a deserter and a traitor to his country” who “will be punished accordingly.”

Opposition activists and Western governments seeking Assad’s ouster lauded the pilot as a hero.

Whether Thursday’s incident was a singular event or would trigger a wave of defections remained uncertain.

The uprising against Assad has seen the Syrian military suffer many desertions from its mostly conscripted ranks, drawn largely from the majority Sunni Muslim population — which has also been the driving force behind the uprising.

But the elite officer corps are believed to have remained mostly intact, despite repeated entreaties from the opposition.

Assad has clearly not suffered the kind of mass, high-level defections that plagued former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Scores of diplomats, generals and senior officials had abandoned Gadhafi by the time armed rebels chased him from the Libyan capital last year.

Still, word of an air force colonel deserting with his MiG-21 may carry symbolic weight in Syria, and seemed sure to bolster rebel morale. Branches of air force intelligence are situated throughout the nation and are regarded as ruthless enforcers of the Syrian police state.

The Syrian pilot took off early Thursday from a base in southern Syria, flying at a high speed and low altitude to avoid detection, reported al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite network. Once in Jordanian air space, al-Jazeera said, the pilot requested permission to land at a Jordanian military air base close to the Syrian border.

Earlier, Syrian state media reported that authorities had “lost contact” with a MiG-21 fighter that was on a training flight in the south.