World powers are seeking to step up the pressure after the defection of a top general dealt a major blow to the Syrian leader. Washington urged countries around the world to pressure Russia and China into forcing Assad to leave power.
A Western official told the Associated Press that Syrian Brigadier General Manaf Tlass had abandoned Assad's regime. Tlass was a member of the elite Republican Guards and a son of a former defence minister. The official wasn't authorized to divulge the information and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Tlass's whereabouts were unclear. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other opposition websites claimed he had fled to Turkey, while other reports said he came to Paris, where he has a sister and where diplomats from around the world gathered Friday for a conference to bolster the Syrian opposition and pressure Assad.
The new defection is the highest profile departure from the Assad regime in 16 months of brutal government crackdowns and civil war. The Paris conference buzzed with talk about the departure.
A member of Syria's opposition National Council, Hassem Hashimi, told the AP in Paris that Tlass has defected, describing him as a powerful figure in the Assad regime. "The defection of Tlass will encourage a lot of similar people to defect as well," he said.
Also in Paris, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined senior officials from about 100 other countries to win wider support for a Syrian transition plan unveiled last week by UN mediator Kofi Annan. Joined by US's allies, she called for "real and immediate consequences for non-compliance, including sanctions", against the Assad regime.
But with neither Moscow nor Beijing in attendance, much remained dependent on persuading the two reluctant UN veto-wielding powers to force Assad into abiding by a cease-fire and the transition strategy. Clinton urged governments around the world to direct their pressure toward Russia and China, as well.
"What can every nation and group represented here do?" Clinton asked. "I ask you to reach out to Russia and China, and to not only urge but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people."
"I don't think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all – nothing at all – for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime," she added. "The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price. Because they are holding up progress, blockading it. That is no longer tolerable."
Frustrated by the difficult international diplomacy, Syria's fractured and frustrated opposition is seeking quick military actions instead.
"We're sick of meetings and deadlines. We want action on the ground," said activist Osama Kayal in the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun, which has been under Syrian army fire for days. He spoke via Skype from a nearby village.
International diplomats at the Paris conference also urged the Syrian opposition to unite.
Hashimi, general secretary of the opposition Syrian National Council, said in Paris he hoped to see a "tough stand" by diplomats, and a no-fly zone to prevent military forces "flying over defected soldiers and civilians and bombarding them."
But military intervention is not on the immediate horizon. US officials say they are focusing on economic pressure, and the Obama administration says it won't intervene militarily or provide weapons to the Syrian rebels for what it considers to be an already too-militarised conflict. Any international mandate for military intervention would almost certainly be blocked by Russia and Moscow in the UN Security Council.
US officials say a UN resolution could be introduced next week, but one that only seeks further economic pressure on Assad's government. Even the chances for that action are unclear, with Russia and China effectively watering down Annan's blueprint for transition at a conference in Geneva last weekend. It granted Assad veto over any interim government candidate he opposes. The opposition gained the same power.
Activists say more than 14 000 people have been killed since the revolt began.
Tlass was one of the most important Sunni figures in Syria's Alawite-dominated regime.
As the son of longtime defence Minister Mustafa Tlass, he was a member of the Syrian Baath Party aristocracy, part of a privileged class that flourished under the Assad dynasty.
His father and Assad's father, Hafez, had been intimate friends since their days in the Syrian military academy in Homs and became close after they were posted in Cairo in the late 1950s when Egypt and Syria merged into the United Arab Republic – a union that lasted three years. After Hafez Assad rose to power in the early 1970s, Mustafa Tlass became defence minister and the Syrian president's most trusted lieutenant.
When Hafez died of a heart attack in 2000, Tlass helped engineer Bashar's succession to the presidency and guided the inexperienced young doctor. Tlass was the chief figure in a coterie of old regime figures that critics blamed for reining in moves to liberalise the Syrian regime. – Sapa-AP