Syrian ambassador to Iraq defects


Syria's ambassador to Iraq has defected in protest at the military crackdown by Dr Assad, opposition sources said today.

Nawaf al-Fares, who was closely linked to the security establishment, would be the first senior Syrian diplomat to defect. He is from Deir al-Zor 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 of the main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC).

The defection of Fares, a Sunni Muslim in a power structure dominated by members of Dr Assad's minority Alawite sect, related to Shia Islam, dealt a serious blow to the authoritarian leader who has been in power since 2000.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition talks with Russia on a political transition in Damascus ended in discord today as an opposition leader said Moscow's policies were helping to prolong the bloodshed in the pivotal Arab 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, former leader of the Syrian National Council.

Russia has acted as one of Dr Assad's few supporters, sending him arms and blocking Western-led attempts to isolate him with UN sanctions while violence in Syria has raged on, raising the death toll over 17,000, by a count of opposition activists.

Syria's opposition has conditioned starting talks with the Damascus government on Dr Assad relinquishing power. But Russia - long a big arms supplier to Damascus - has said this is unacceptable and not part of an international peace plan laid out by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

"We have made it very clear that any transition period must start with Assad's departure as otherwise we are really not dealing with the problem," Abdelbasset Sida, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, told reporters in Moscow.

A member of the SNC delegation said that Moscow had not fundamentally changed its position but that while Russian diplomats were "contradicting themselves", he said they were "looking for a genuine solution".

Iran's government supports a plan for a Syria-led political transition, Kofi Annan said today after briefing the UN
Security Council by video-link on his trip to Syria, Iran and Iraq.

He said he expected the Security Council to decide on the next steps for Syria in the next few days, but gave a tepid
response when asked about President Bashar al-Assad's choice of a person to represent Syria in 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," Mr Annan told reporters in Geneva.

However the White House said Iran's role on Syria had not been productive and that the US was interested in working with nations that would be more constructive in helping bring stability. 

White House spokesman Jay Carney said while he was not ruling anything out, "we reject the idea that
it is likely that Iran can play a constructive role."

The United States and its European and Gulf Arab allies have said Dr Assad, whose family has dominated Syria for 42 years, must go to enable a peaceful transition. Russia, China and Iran have disagreed, helping Dr Assad withstand pressure to step down.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pressed the Syrian National Council on the Annan plan and points agreed during the meeting of an "Action Group" in Geneva on June 30th, which envisages a political transition but leave DR Assad's fate open.

"Lavrov decisively called on counterparts to take a clear and unequivocal position confirming the readiness of the SNC to carry out its obligations," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

Russian officials said Moscow was committed to a political transition in Syria but that a dialogue between government and opposition should not require Dr Assad's departure. But in a move that, if confirmed, may presage a Russian shift away from the authoritarian Syrian leader as rebel forces have gained some strength, a Russian arms trade official was quoted earlier this week as saying Moscow would deliver no more weapons to Dr Assad while the fighting continued.

Russia circulated a draft resolution at the United Nations today to extend a UN monitoring mission in Syria now bottled up in hotels by the violence. A source in the Russian navy said a Russian warship had left for Syria yesterday and another military source said four more were en route there but that this had nothing to do with the Syrian conflict.

The sources said the vessels were carrying provisions to a small maintenance and repair facility that Russia maintains in the Syrian port of Tartous, the only naval base it has outside of the former Soviet Union.