Another day, another defector from Assad's Syria

The Syrian ambassador to Iraq defected today, the second prominent Sunni to do so in two weeks. With their departures, Syria's Sunni vs. Alawite conflict hardens.

By , Correspondent

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    In this September 2008 file photo, Nawaf Fares (l.) is sworn in as Syria's first ambassador to Iraq in 26 years before Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (r.), and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Damascus. On Thursday, July 11, Fares announced his resignation and will seek asylum in Turkey, the most senior diplomat to abandon the regime since the uprising against Assad began 16 months ago.
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The defection of another senior Sunni Syrian official in a week is a further signal of growing unease on the fringes of the Alawite-dominated regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the core of the regime appears to remain united and shows no sign of imminent collapse, suggesting that the confrontation will become more protracted and take on a harder sectarian edge in the weeks and months ahead.

Nawaf Fares, who had served as Syria's ambassador to Baghdad since 2008, yesterday announced his resignation from the ruling Baath Party and said he was joining the opposition to the Assad regime.

"I call on all party members to do the same because the regime has transformed it into a tool to oppress the people and their real aspirations to freedom and dignity," he told the Al Jazeera Arabic after traveling to Qatar.

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In response, the Syrian foreign ministry said that Mr. Fares had been "discharged" for making statements "that are in contradiction with his duty," adding that he could be prosecuted and subjected to "disciplinary action."

Fares, a Sunni, is the head of the powerful Uqaydat tribe that straddles the Syria-Iraq border. He is also a former governor of Deir ez Zour, a large town in eastern Syria where regime and opposition forces regularly clash.

His public defection came a week after Manaf Tlass, a top army general and close friend of Mr. Assad since childhood, left Syria for France. Unlike Fares, General Tlass has made no public statement explaining his departure from Syria or outlining his future plans. Some reports suggest his faith in the regime collapsed following the Syrian army's onslaught against the city of Homs and the surrounding area, which includes the Tlass family's hometown of Rastan. Some of the strongest rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) units operate in the Homs area. One of them, the Farouq Battalion, is headed by Abdul Razaq Tlass, a cousin of Manaf Tlass, perhaps underlining his conflicting tugs of loyalty.

Still, his flight from Syria is significant irrespective of whether it was a political defection to the ranks of the opposition or simply a move to protect himself and his family in case the Assad regime collapses. Manaf's father was Mustafa Tlass, a long-serving defense minister and confederate of Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of the current leader.

The Tlass family symbolized the alliance between prominent Sunnis and the Alawites, an obscure offshoot of the Shiite sect to which the Assads belong. Mustapha Tlass, like several senior Syrian figures from the Hafez al-Assad era, was gradually squeezed out of power following Bashar's ascension to the presidency in 2000. Last year, shortly after the uprising against Assad rule began, Mustapha Tlass travelled to Paris, citing medical reasons, and is believed to still be in the French capital. Firas Tlass, Manaf's brother, also left Syria several months ago.

The bulk of the Syrian opposition is Sunni, mainly drawn from the rural areas and the urban working classes. The departures of Manaf Tlass and Fares are the first indications that even prominent Sunni regime loyalists are beginning to break away. Such defections will likely strengthen the impression that the struggle for Syria is devolving into a sectarian conflict, pitting the mainly Sunni rebels against an entrenched Alawite elite while other minorities, such as Christians, Druze, and Kurds, watch apprehensively from the sidelines.

The core units of the Syrian army are still holding together, even though military defections have increased in recent weeks with ever more senior officers fleeing for the relative safety of neighboring Turkey. The defections have bolstered the morale of the rebel FSA which has shown improving military skills lately combined with a greater supply of weapons and ammunition. Perhaps in an indication of the intensifying violence, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday that video evidence has emerged that the Syrian army has been employing Soviet-era cluster bomb munitions against rebel-held hills near Hama in the center of the country.

"If confirmed, this would be the first documented use of these highly dangerous weapons by the Syrian armed forces during the conflict," said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch.

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