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Beirut - Syria's ambassador to Iraq defected on Wednesday in protest at the military crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad's forces against a 16-month uprising, Syrian opposition sources said.
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.
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.
The first sign of a crack in Syria's diplomatic ranks comes as Assad won further strong backing from the two major powers resisting Western and Gulf Arab pressure to oust him - Russia and China.
China on Wednesday threw its weight behind UN envoy Kofi Annan, backing his call to include Assad's ally Iran in internationally brokered talks to resolve the Syrian crisis, in the face of strong Western opposition.
“China believes that the appropriate resolution of the Syria issue cannot be separated from the countries in the region, especially the support and participation of those countries that are influential on relevant sides in Syria,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in Beijing.
UN Security Council veto-holders China and Russia have for the past year blocked efforts by Washington and its European and Gulf Arab allies to turn the screws on Assad.
In Moscow, Russia resisted calls from the Syrian National Council to make Assad's resignation a condition for talks on a political transition.
Talks ended in discord as an opposition leader said Moscow's policies were helping to prolong the bloodshed.
“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, former leader of the Syrian National Council.
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.
Annan was due to brief the Security Council on Wednesday on the results of a lightning diplomatic shuttle this week to Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad - three capitals forming a Shi'ite Muslim axis of power in the Middle East.
Annan plunged into a tussle between the major powers on Tuesday, insisting that Iran, which strongly backs Assad and is regarded as an adversary of the West and Gulf Arabs, had a role to play in the drive to relaunch stalled peace efforts and begin talks towards a political transition.
In Baghdad, Annan also won backing from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who, like Assad, has close ties to Tehran.
The reaction from two other Security Council veto-holders was not encouraging for the envoy.
“I don't think anybody with a straight face could argue that Iran has had a positive impact on developments in Syria,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said: “Regarding Iran, we have made our position clear. We believe that this country does not have a place in the action group that brings together countries and players that are really involved in trying to find a political and peaceful solution in Syria.”
Moscow's latest move in the game of diplomatic chess was to suggest on Tuesday that it could host regular meetings of an “action group” that would include the Syrian opposition.
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.
The 15-member Security Council must decide what to do with the UN mission in Syria, known as UNSMIS, before July 20 when its mandate expires. It is due to vote on July 18.
In April, it authorised 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.
The United States and France indicated they were unlikely to support the Russian resolution. They have called for a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which would allow the council to authorise actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention. - Reuters