Syria said on Thursday its ambassador to Iraq had left without prior warning, after Nawaf al Fares said he had defected.
"The Syrian foreign ministry declares that Nawaf al-Fares has been relieved of his duties and he no longer has any link to our embassy in Baghdad or the foreign ministry. The embassy in Iraq will continue carrying out its normal duties," it said in a statement.
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Fares, a former provincial governor, is the second prominent Syrian to break with the regime in less than a week. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister, fled Syria last week, buoying Western powers and anti-regime activists, who expressed hope that other high-ranking defections would follow.
The high-level defections could be a sign that Assad's tightly wrapped regime is unraveling, but it was too early to be certain. There have been thousands of defections in the past, mostly low-level army conscripts, but until now no one as senior as the general and the ambassador had fled.
President Bashar Assad speaks on Syrian TV (Photo: AP)
In a statement broadcast on the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera, Fares said he was resigning and joining the opposition. Wearing a dark suit and reading from a prepared text in what appeared to be a large office, Fares harshly criticized Assad.
"I'm announcing from this moment on that I'm siding with the revolution in Syria," he said, according to the Al-Jazeera translation into English. He called on all Syrians to abandon Assad.
"Where is the honor in killing your countrymen? Where is the national allegiance? The nation is all the people, not one person in particular," he said. "The allegiance is to the people, not to a dictator who kills his people."
It was not known where or when Fares recorded the statement.
Appointed to the Baghdad post four years ago, Fares was the first Syrian ambassador to Iraq in 26 years. Like Tlass, he is a member of the privileged Sunni elite in a regime dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect.
Khaled Khoja, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council who is based in Istanbul, said Fares was "moving toward Turkey." Asked for details, Khoja said the information came from his own sources on the ground in Iraq.
There was no immediate comment from either Iraq or Syria. An operator who answered the phone at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad said there was nobody at the embassy. When asked if the ambassador is currently in Iraq, the operator said he did not know.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US had no confirmation of the defection as of Wednesday afternoon. But he said recent high-level defections from the Assad regime were "a welcome development."
"That is an indication of the fact that support for Assad is crumbling," Carney said.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that if true, Fares would be the first senior diplomat from the regime to defect.
The conflict in Syria has defied every international attempt to bring peace. Although the Assad government's crackdown has turned the Syrian president into an international pariah, he still has the support of strong allies such as Russia, Iran and China.
A prominent Syrian opposition leader said Wednesday during a visit to Moscow that Russia's resistance to international intervention in the conflict was bringing misery and "suffering" to the violence-torn country.