The regime of President Bashar Assad is near collapse and now controls only 30 percent of Syria, the country’s former prime minister said Tuesday in his first comments since defecting to Jordan last week.
The comments by Riyad Farid Hijab, the highest-ranking official to defect from the Syrian government, came as the bloodshed inside the country continued. Activists said at least 60 people were killed Tuesday, including at least six children.
“The regime is on the verge of collapse morally, financially and economically in addition to cracks in the military,” Hijab told a news conference televised from the Jordanian capital, Amman.
He urged other political and military leaders to defect and join the rebel side and called on the exiled opposition to unite.
But in making his comments, Hijab sought to assure those in the opposition that he was not seeking a political position now or in a free Syria, which he predicted would come soon. “I consider myself a soldier in the path of righteousness,” he said.
Opposition members and rebel leaders who first came out calling for Assad’s ouster 17 months ago have both welcomed and regarded with some suspicion some of the former higher-ranking political and military officials who have joined the cause only recently.
Assad’s regime has been battling the uprising with both military forces and pro-government militias. In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday said that Iran is providing military training to one of the militias, part of a growing effort by Tehran to prevent armed rebels from driving an ally from power.
“We are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern,” Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. “We do not think Iran ought to be playing that role. It adds to the killing.”
The militia, known as the Army of the People, has emerged as a force over the last year as Syria’s military has struggled to put down the rebellion. Its fighters are drawn mainly from Shiite Muslims and Alawites, two sects that form the core of the regime’s support against the largely Sunni Muslim revolt. It wasn’t immediately clear where, or how large, the militia is.
U.N. emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos on Tuesday arrived in Damascus, the Syrian capital, as part of a three-day trip to the region to discuss humanitarian aid for those trapped by the escalating combat or forced to flee their homes. Amos’ visit came a day after activists said more than 150 people across the country were killed in the ongoing conflict.
Amos came to discuss ways of urgently increasing relief efforts and reducing civilian suffering with Syrian authorities, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other humanitarian groups. Later in her trip she will meet with refugee families in Lebanon and discuss with the Lebanese government and relief organizations on how best to support them.
As fighting in recent weeks has stepped up in areas people had previously sought refuge — including Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub — nowhere in the country now seems safe.
The United Nations estimates that 2 million people have been affected by the conflict between government forces and rebels and more than 1 million have been internally displaced. More than 140,000 people have fled the violence and crossed into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the head of the U.N. monitoring mission said Tuesday that the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons by Assad’s forces as well as targeted attacks by the opposition are increasing.
“It is clear that violence is increasing in many parts of Syria,” said Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye of Senegal, speaking at a news conference in Damascus. “Our patrols are monitoring the impact of this violence, visiting internally displaced people and hospitals.”
The monitoring mission has intensified its efforts to negotiate “local pauses” to enable assistance to civilians, Gaye said. Monitors had suspended their regular patrols and monitoring activities in mid-June as the violence escalated.
“The conflict has gone on too long and far too many people are suffering,” he said.
The U.N. monitoring mission, which began in April and has been criticized for doing nothing to quell the bloodshed, only has less than a week to go before its authorization expires.
“We will continue to the last minute of our mandate to urge the parties to move from confrontation to dialogue,” he said.
(Times staff writer David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.)