Syria 'crumbling' after PM's defection

Hijab spokesman: Mohammed el-Etri

Western powers have said the defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab is a sign that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is crumbling.

The White House said the momentum was now with the opposition, while France said the Assad government was "doomed".

Mr Hijab, the most senior Syrian figure to defect, on Monday denounced Syria's "terrorist regime" and said he was joining the revolution.

His whereabouts are unknown, although reports say he may head to Qatar.

Clashes have continued in the second city of Aleppo where rebel fighters are resisting a bombardment by government artillery and fighter jets.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said such high-level defections signalled that President Assad's grip on power was "loosening" and that his regime was "crumbling from within".

"If he cannot maintain cohesion within his own inner circle, it reflects on his inability to maintain any following among the Syrian people that isn't brought about at the point of a gun," he said.

"The momentum is with the opposition and with the Syrian people."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the latest defection was another sign of the regime weakening and losing support.

"France is convinced the Assad regime is doomed," he said in a statement.

'Holy revolution'

Last month, Syria's ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, deserted to the opposition. Brig Gen Manaf Tlas, who was considered close to President Assad, defected in July.

Riad Farid Hijab

Riad Hijab in 2008
  • Born in 1966 in Deir al-Zour, eastern Syria
  • Married with four children
  • Holds a PhD in agriculture
  • Joined the local branch of the Baath Party command in 1998
  • Named governor of the southern province of Qunaytira in 2008
  • Transferred to head the Latakia governorate around the time protests were first reported - credited in state media with negotiating an end to a sit-in
  • Appointed minister of agriculture on 14 April 2011

About 30 other generals have crossed into Turkey so far and Turkish news agency Anatolia reported on Monday that another general had fled with five high-ranking officers and more than 30 soldiers.

First news of Mr Hijab's exit from the Syrian government came from Syrian state TV shortly after a bomb went off at its own headquarters, injuring three people.

Just after announcing the explosion, it broadcast that Mr Hijab - appointed only two months before - had been sacked.

Mr Hijab's spokesman then appeared on al-Jazeera TV in neighbouring Jordan saying that the prime minister and his family had fled Syria. He said Mr Hijab was in "a safe location".

It was widely reported that Mr Hijab had crossed the border into Jordan, although Jordanian state TV later denied this.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Lebanon says Mr Hijab is expected to move on to Qatar.

"I have defected from the terrorist, murderous regime and [am] joining the holy revolution," ran Mr Hijab's statement read by his spokesman Mohammed el-Etri.

"I declare that from today I am a soldier of this holy revolution."

Mr el-Etri later told the BBC that the Syrian regime was "now in its last throes" and that it had been dealt "a fatal blow" by Mr Hijab's defection.

Mr Hijab is a Sunni Muslim from the restive Deir al-Zour area of eastern Syria. He was one of the leading Sunnis in President Assad's minority Alawite-dominated regime.

Opposition activists said two other ministers also defected and a third - finance minister Mohammad Jalilati - was arrested as he tried to escape.

However, Syrian state TV broadcast a phone interview it said was with Mr Jalilati, saying he was working as normal.

Meanwhile, amateur video uploaded to social media websites on Monday purported to show the continued bombardment of rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

In the capital Damascus, troops backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships have kept up an offensive against the last rebel bastions there.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to visit Turkey at the weekend for talks on the situation in Syria.

Turkey, a staunch critic of President Assad, has given shelter to Syrian defectors and the Syrian opposition.

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