Syrian ambassador to Iraq has defected, says opposition


POLICE IN Baghdad surrounded the Syrian embassy yesterday after opposition groups claimed that the Syrian envoy to Iraq had defected in protest at the regime’s crackdown.

The Syrian National Council said Nawaf al-Fares, Damascus’s first ambassador to Baghdad in more than 30 years, had joined the opposition and pledged that more diplomats would soon follow.

If confirmed, the defection of Mr Fares would be the first of any senior Syrian diplomat since the uprising began 16 months ago. Iraqi officials said they had no knowledge of Mr Fares’s whereabouts and could not confirm if he remained in Baghdad.

However, a senior Iraqi politician, Ayad Allawi, tweeted last night: “Reliable sources have informed me of the defection of Nawaf Fares, Syria ambassador to Iraq.” Earlier, SNC member Mohammed Sermini said: “This is just the beginning of a series of defections on the diplomatic level. We are in touch with several ambassadors.”

Mr Fares had been a leading member of Syria’s diplomatic corps and a commanding presence among the country’s Sunni elite. He is from Abu Kamal in the east, bordering Iraq’s Anbar province.

The tribes in Anbar and those in Syria’s vast eastern desert hail from the same families and are thought to have been increasingly active in the Sunni-led uprising in the east of the country.

Confirmation of Mr Fares’s departure would mark the second high-profile defection from the heart of the regime in less than a week. Last Thursday Brig Gen Manaf Tlass, a friend of President Bashar al-Assad, fled Damascus with his family – the first defection from the inner sanctum. He is thought to be in Paris.

In a further blow to the regime, two generals from the country’s intelligence services are believed to have been captured last week by opposition guerrillas. Maj Gen Faraj al-Maket and Gen Munair al-Ahmed Shlaybi, from the Palestinian Branch of military intelligence, were shown on an online video claiming they had been captured in late June. Both appeared to have been beaten. The Palestinian Branch is one of Syria’s two main intelligence organisations and has been central to the regime crackdown on dissent.

Mr Fares and Brig Gen Tlass are leading and trusted members of the Sunni establishment who worked closely with Syria’s Alawite-based leadership. Mr Fares is considered to be highly influential among the tribal groups in eastern Syria, where regime forces have faced an increasingly organised guerilla force. – (Guardian service)