Syria's honorary consul general in California said Wednesday he has defected from the regime of President Bashar Assad in protest of the killings last week in the town of Houla.
Hazem Chehabi, reached at his home in Orange County, said he had resigned his post and severed association with Assad's government in protest of the attack Friday that left more than 100 Syrians dead, most of them women and children.
"You get to a point where your silence or inaction becomes ethically or morally unacceptable," Chehabi said, describing the Houla killings as a "barbaric" incident with which he couldn't be associated.
Chehabi was one of Syria's highest-ranking diplomats in the United States and is the first to defect from Assad. The United States on Tuesday joined 10 other nations in expelling Syria's diplomats in protest of the Houla slayings, which U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Wednesday were "unambiguously" the work of militiamen loyal to Assad.
A spokesman for the Syrian American Council said Chehabi is a U.S. citizen and as honorary counsel wasn't subject to Washington's expulsion order.
"We welcome Chehabi's resignation and urge him to use his ties with Syrian officials to convince them to defect from the Assad regime in order to help speed its fall and save lives," said council activist Ammar Kahf.
Chehabi is chairman of the University of California at Irvine board of trustees and had been the subject of student protests urging his removal.
Charles Ries, director of Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy, said the diplomatic expulsions could force Syrian officials, military officers and foreign envoys to reconsider their relationship with the Assad regime and set off embarrassing defections that the Syrian president has so far been spared.
--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles