SANA, File, Associated Press
ISTANBUL — The Syrian ambassador to Iraq has defected and is on his way to Turkey, the most senior diplomat to abandon President Bashar Assad during the 16-month-old uprising, a Syrian opposition figure said Wednesday.
Nawaf Fares, a former provincial governor, would be the second prominent Syrian to break with the regime in less than a week. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister, fled Syria last week, buoying Western powers and anti-regime activists, who expressed hope that other high-ranking defections would follow.
Appointed to the Baghdad post four years ago, Fares was the first Syrian ambassador to Iraq in 26 years. Like Tlass, he is a member of the privileged Sunni elite in a regime dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect.
"It's certain. Fares has defected. He declared his defection. ... He's moving toward Turkey," said Khaled Khoja, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who is based in Istanbul. Asked for details, Khoja said the information came from his own sources on the ground in Iraq.
There was no immediate confirmation from either Iraq or Syria. An operator who answered the phone at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad said there was nobody at the embassy. When asked if the ambassador is currently in Iraq, the operator said he did not know.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. had no confirmation of the defection as of Wednesday afternoon. But he said recent high-level defections from the Assad regime were "a welcome development."
"That is an indication of the fact that support for Assad is crumbling," Carney said.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that if true, Fares would be the first senior diplomat from the regime to defect.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh also said he could not confirm whether Fares had defected.
Thousands of soldiers, most of them low-level conscripts, have deserted and joined the rebels. But despite the latest high-profile defections, Assad's regime has largely held together in the face of the uprising — particularly compared with the swift hemorrhaging of Moammar Gadhafi's inner circle in Libya in 2011.
The conflict in Syria has defied every international attempt to bring peace. Although the Assad government's crackdown has turned the Syrian president into an international pariah, he still has the support of strong allies such as Russia, Iran and China.
A prominent Syrian opposition leader said Wednesday during a visit to Moscow that Russia's resistance to international intervention in the conflict was bringing misery and "suffering" to the violence-torn country.
Two Syrian opposition delegations visited Moscow this week, raising hopes that Russia could be pushed to accept the ouster of Assad. But Syrian National Council head Abdelbaset Sieda said he saw "no change" in Moscow's stance after meeting with officials including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
"The Syrian people are suffering because of Russia, because of the position it has taken, because of its veto in the U.N. Security Council," Sieda said at a news conference. "The current regime uses Russian weapons against its own people."
Activists estimate 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising began, and as the conflict continues, the rebellion appears to be getting more and more radicalized and violent, making any peaceful resolution or transfer of power a long-shot.
International envoy Kofi Annan urged the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to send a message to the Syrian government and the opposition that there will be "consequences" if they don't comply with demands for an immediate cease-fire, a U.N. diplomat said.
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