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Syria fires envoy who defected a day earlier

July 12, 2012 |  5:48 am

BEIRUT -- The Syrian Foreign Ministry dismissed its ambassador to Iraq on Thursday, a day after the envoy defected and publicly urged fellow diplomats and military officials to abandon the embattled government of President Bashar Assad.

The official Syrian news service said that the now former ambassador, Nawaf Fares, “made press statements that contradict the duties of his position defending the country’s stances and issues.”

The firing comes after the ambassador became the first high-level diplomat to abandon the government since the rebellion broke out 16 months ago.

Fares, a longtime Assad family loyalist, publicly announced both his resignation from the diplomatic post and his defection from the ruling Baath Party.

"I urge all honest members of this party to follow my path because the regime has turned it [the party] to an instrument to kill people and their aspiration to freedom,” Fares said in a statement broadcast on Al Jazeera, the pan-Arabic satellite network.

He also urged military officers and others to join the rebellion, while calling on fellow ambassadors to resign. The backdrop of Fares' video-taped defection statement included an image of Syria's pre-Baath era national flag, which has become the banner of the uprising.

"The people still pin much hope on you,” he told army members. “Turn your cannon barrels and your tank shells and point them straight at the chests of this regime's criminals and the murderers of the people."

Fares also called on Syrians to avoid sectarian divisions and employed harsh language to condemn a government that he had served loyally for years.

“Each young Syrian should immediately join the revolution to expedite the removal of this nightmare and this gang that have spread corruption and destruction within the Syrian state and the Syrian society for over 40 years," the former ambassador declared.

Analysts called Fares’ defection a significant blow to the Assad government. He was a senior figure well connected in the ruling-party apparatus. Whether his action would trigger a new round of defections was not clear.

"We should consider him [Fares] as someone very close to the regime,” Bassam Imadi, an opposition figure and former Syrian ambassador to Sweden, told Al Jazeera. “But still he defected because I think he could not bear watching what is happening in Syria.”

His defection comes less than a week after Manaf Tlas, a high-ranking Syrian general and son of a former defense minister, abandoned Syria and joined his family in exile. However, Tlas had not commanded troops in months and had been living in what was described as a form of house arrest. Tlas issued no confirmed public statement condemning the Assad government and has not been heard from publicly since he left Syria.

Like Tlas, Fares was described as a Sunni Muslim in a nation where the rebellion has sprung up from a  Sunni majority  disenchanted with the longtime rule of the Assad family. The Assads are members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Fares hails from the eastern city of Dair Alzour, where government and insurgent forces have been engaged in fierce fighting for months, with many casualties on both sides.

According to reports in the Iraqi press, Fares had left Iraq and by Thursday was in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar.

Fares reportedly held several key governance and security positions before becoming Syria’s ambassador to neighboring Iraq in 2008. Syria and Iraq had strained ties for decades after rival factions of the pan-Arab socialist Baath party grabbed power in both countries back in the 1960s.

In a 2008 article, The National newspaper, based in the United Arab Emirates, described Fares as the ideal man for the ambassador's post in Iraq given his “top-level connections within the Syrian establishment” and “family ties to the Iraqi tribal network.”


Defection illustrates Syrian rift

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Ousted priest committed to peace in Syria

--Alexandra Sandels. Patrick J. McDonnell in Antakya, Turkey, contributed.