Syrian government 'falling apart'


Former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab said today that president Bashar al-Assad's government is falling apart and controls only 30 per cent of the country.

In his first public appearance since defecting to the opposition, Mr Hijab told a news conference in Jordan that the government's spirits were low after struggling for 17 months to crush the revolt against Dr Assad's rule.

"I tell you out of my experience and the position I occupied that the regime is collapsing, morally, materially and economically. Militarily it is crumbling as it no longer occupies more than 30 percent of Syrian territory," he said.

Mr Hijab did not elaborate on that assertion, and took no questions from reporters.

It has been hard to independently determine the extent of territory in rebel hands as much of the fighting has occurred in outlying towns and rural areas and media access to Syria is restricted. But Assad has lost swathes of territory along Syria's northern and eastern border and fighting has weakened his hold on larger cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

Mr Hijab added: "Oh devoted revolutionaries, your revolution has become a model of effort and sacrifice for the sake of freedom and dignity."

Mr Hijab, who like much of the opposition comes from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, was not part of Assad's inner circle. But as prime minister and the most senior civilian official to defect, his departure dealt a symbolic blow to the government, which is dominated by Dr Assad's minority Alawite sect.

His defection along with that of Syria's ambassador to Iraq, both tribal figures from Deir al-Zor, boosted opposition morale but the military reality on the ground has not changed, with aerial and ground bombardment keeping rebels in check.

Mr Hijab urged officers in the military to defect and join the opposition. He also called on rebels to work harder to unify their fractious ranks.

"Oh men of the Free Syrian Army, unify your ranks as all hopes hang on you, you are the best fighters of this world," said Mr Hijab, who took no questions from reporters.

Syrian authorities said they had dismissed Mr Hijab before he fled, but he told the news conference in Amman that he resigned and defected to the opposition, referring to the Assad government as an "enemy of God".

"It is my duty to wash my hands of this corrupt regime," he said.

Foreign ministers at a meeting of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, agreed yesterday to suspend Syria's membership, an organisation source told Reuters. The motion, which requires a two-thirds majority and is opposed by Tehran, will be adopted during a two-day summit in Mecca.

China said it would host Bouthaina Shaaban, an aide to president Assad, today and consider separately inviting opposition figures. The opposition has rejected Chinese peace overtures.

Meanwhile, United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator Valerie Amos arrived in Syria today at the start of a three-day regional trip to discuss humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians trapped or displaced by the fighting.

Ms Amos, who entered Syria on a land convoy from Lebanon, is scheduled to meet Syrian authorities including deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad, as well as officials from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, spokesman Jens Laerke said.