By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT, July 11 (Reuters) - 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.
ASSAD HAS CHINA, RUSSIA SUPPORT
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 U.N. 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.
U.N. 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 told reporters.
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 U.N. 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 U.N. Charter, which would allow the council to authorise actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention. (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Mariam Karouny in Beirut and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alison Williams)
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS