Nawaf al-Fares, who has close ties to Syrian security, would be the first senior diplomat to quit the embattled government.
There has been no comment from Damascus or Baghdad and the White House said it was unable to confirm the defection, news of which broke just before mediator Kofi Annan briefed the U.N. Security Council on his faltering diplomatic effort to craft a political solution to the crisis.
A veteran of Assad’s rule who held senior positions under the late president Hafez al-Assad, Fares is from Deir al-Zor, the eastern city on the road to Iraq which has been the scene of a ferocious military onslaught by Assad forces.
“This is just the beginning of a series of defections on the diplomatic level. We are in touch with several ambassadors,” said Mohamed Sermini, a member of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council.
The defection of Fares, a Sunni, could be a major blow to Assad, who wants to convince a sceptical world that he is conducting a legitimate defence of his country against foreign-backed armed groups bent on toppling the government.
Fares’ decision to jump ship follows the high-profile flight from Syria last week of Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, also a Sunni and once a close friend of Assad, whose minority Alawite sect has relied on Sunni allies to maintain control of Syria’s majority Sunni population.
Tlas fled to Paris and has not spoken since of his intentions. Opposition sources said Fares was leaving Iraq but it was not clear where he would go.
GLACIAL DIPLOMATIC PACE
The apparent crack in Assad’s diplomatic ranks came as international diplomacy inched along with few signs that major powers were narrowing their differences on the next steps to address Syria’s crisis.
Annan, appointed by the United Nations and the Arab League to mediate in the crisis, briefed the Security Council by video-link from Geneva on the results of this week’s diplomatic shuttle to Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad – three capitals forming a Shi’ite Muslim axis of power in the Middle East.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Annan said he expected the Security Council to decide the next steps on Syria in coming days and that Assad had identified his nominee to represent the government in potential future talks with the opposition.
“He did offer a name and I indicated that I wanted to know a bit more about the individual, so we are at that stage,” Annan said.
The 15-member Security Council must decide what to do with the U.N. mission in Syria, known as UNSMIS, before July 20 when its mandate expires. It is due to vote on July 18.
In April, it authorized deployment of up to 300 unarmed military observers to Syria to oversee a ceasefire, part of a six-point peace plan proposed by Annan. But the truce was never honoured and the monitors are now confined to hotels.
Russia on Tuesday circulated to Security Council members a draft resolution proposing to extend the mission for three months so it can shift focus from monitoring the non-existent truce to securing a political solution.
But Britain and France were poised to counter Moscow with their own draft which diplomats said would likely cite Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which would allow the council to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention..
IRAN, IRAQ SUPPORT PLAN
Annan said on Wednesday both Iran and Iraq supported a plan for a Syrian-led political transition in Damascus – buttressing his argument that Tehran should be involved in efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis despite the West’s firm rejection of any Iranian role.
“Obviously, they will use their influence on the government and the parties in moving in that direction,” he said.
Russia, which along with China has backed Annan’s calls for Iran to be included in the process, said not to do so would be shortsighted.
“Iran has a role to play, it is playing a role, and ignoring Iran or just dismissing Iran on a political basis is not very wise,” Russia’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexander Pankin said.
But U.S. officials said there was still no sign that Tehran was ready to act constructively.
“Iran is definitely part of the problem in Syria, it is supporting, aiding and abetting the Assad regime materially and in many other ways and it has shown no readiness to contribute constructively,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told reporters.
U.N. Security Council veto-holders China and Russia have for the past year blocked efforts by Washington and its European and Arab allies to turn the screws on Assad.
Opposition leaders say there can be no peaceful transition unless Assad, who crushed popular protests from the moment they began, relinquishes power first. Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years, says he still has the backing of his people.
In Moscow, Syrian opposition talks with Russia ended in discord on Wednesday, and an opposition leader accused Moscow of pursuing policies that were helping to prolong the bloodshed in the country..
“The Syrian people don’t understand Russia’s position. How can Russia keep supplying arms? How can they keep vetoing resolutions? There needs to be an end to mass killings,” said Burhan Ghalioun of the exiled Syrian National Council (SNC).
But one member of Syria’s opposition said a broader shift may be starting in Moscow, which has stepped up its diplomacy in recent weeks amid hints it may be moderating its support for Assad as turmoil engulfs its long-time ally.
“We’re trying to work out what exactly Russia is trying to do here. I think they’re looking for a genuine solution,” a member of the SNC delegation which held talks in Moscow said, asking not to be identified.
Assad’s opponents say just under 13,000 armed and unarmed opponents of Assad, and around 4,300 members of security forces loyal to Damascus, have been killed since he launched a crackdown 16 months ago, using tanks and helicopter gunships to attack rebel strongholds inside Syria’s biggest cities.
Activists on Wednesday reported a new bombardment of rebel areas of Homs, a hotbed of opposition to Assad, as well as fighting in many other parts of the country.
Syria’s army fired live missiles on Wednesday in an exercise aiming at showcasing its ability to “destroy any enemy targets”, state media reported. The tests concluded five days of war games, which analysts say are a warning to Assad’s foes.
Opposition figures have been calling for a no-fly zone and NATO strikes against Syrian forces, similar to those carried out in Libya last year which enabled rebel ground forces to end the rule of Muammar Gaddafi.
But while Assad has faced sanctions and international condemnation, major Western and Arab powers have shied away from the idea of direct military action. DM
Photo: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad (L) talks to the new Syrian ambassador to Iraq Nawaf Fares in Damascus September 16, 2008. Syria named Fares ambassador to Iraq on Tuesday, two years after the two countries restored diplomatic ties. REUTERS/Sana
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