WASHINGTON/GENEVA/ALEPPO: Foreign ministers from leading Western states and Turkey have discussed ways to accelerate the fall of Syrian President Bashar Assad and prepare for the aftermath, as Washington steps up its pressure on China to help end the 17-month-old crisis.
The moves came amid continued fierce fighting throughout Syria, claiming 73 lives Tuesday, according to activists.
Separately, Syria’s former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who fled to Jordan last week, said the regime controlled only 30 percent of the country.
In his first public statement since leaving his post, Hijab said Assad’s regime was near collapse and urged other leaders to tip the scales and join the rebel side.
“The regime is on the verge of collapse morally and economically in addition to cracks in the military,” Hijab told a news conference in Amman, Jordan.
He said he felt “pain in his soul” over the regime’s shelling and other attacks on rebel strongholds as the government stepped up its military offensive.
“I was powerless to stop the injustice,” Hijab said, speaking in front of the rebel flag. He called on “honorable leaders” in Syria to defect as well.
“Syria is full of honorable officials and military leaders who are waiting for the chance to join the revolution,” he said.
“I urge the army to follow the example of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s armies – take the side of the people,” he added.
Hijab said that he was now backing the opposition rebels, but gave no clue regarding his plans.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a conference call for more than an hour Monday before with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, her spokeswoman said Tuesday.
They discussed “support for the opposition in hastening the day when the Assad regime falls,” along with care for refugees and planning for a post-Assad Syria, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
“The conversation very much focused on ensuring that we are all pulling in the same direction, that we’re all sharing information, that we are thinking about the division of labor,” Nuland told reporters.
Clinton was following up on weekend talks in Turkey, where she said the “number one goal” of the U.S. and Turkey was to help bring down the regime and halt the violence, which activists now say has claimed at least 23,000 lives since March 2011.
Washington also asked China to use its influence to press Assad to end the bloodshed, as senior U.S. and Syrian envoys visited Beijing.
“Our hope is that the Chinese will do what they can and use their influence to encourage the Assad regime to end the violence,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Washington hopes that China will encourage Assad to comply with a peace plan negotiated by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, who resigned on Aug. 2 as the special envoy to Syria, blaming weak support for his efforts.
Damascus has agreed to the candidacy of Algeria’s Lakhdar Brahimi as successor to Annan, his spokesman said in Geneva.
“I was asked if it was true that the Syrians had consented to his candidacy and I said yes,” Ahmad Fawzi said. “No decision has been made yet, by him or by the secretary-general” Ban Ki-moon, Fawzi added.
The State Department’s No. 3 official, Wendy Sherman, held talks in Beijing Tuesday as part of a new dialogue set up between the Pacific powers to discuss Middle East policy.
Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, also met with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and will hold talks Wednesday with China’s envoy to the six-nation dialogue on Iran’s contested nuclear program, Nuland said.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a special adviser to Assad, is headed for Beijing to hold talks with Yang and China has said it would consider inviting members of the Syrian opposition to visit in the future.
China has joined Russia in vetoing three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad, uncomfortable with what it sees as Western intervention in other countries’ internal affairs.
Sherman will afterward travel to Russia, the main diplomatic and military supporter of Assad.
In Sherman’s talks, the United States “welcomed China playing a more active and positive role in world affairs,” a State Department statement said.
But as U.S. and Western officials step up their efforts to accelerate Assad’s fall, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said plans to set up a no-fly zone over parts of Syria are “not on the front burner,” despite persistent calls from rebel forces there that they need the added protection from escalating regime airstrikes.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Panetta said Monday he was confident the U.S. could successfully enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, but doing so would require a “major, major policy decision” that has not yet been made.
“We have planned for a number of contingencies that could take place and one of those possible contingencies is developing a no-fly zone. But we’ve also pointed out difficulties in being able to implement that,” Panetta said. “It’s not on the front burner as far as I know.”
Currently, Panetta said, the U.S. is focused on ensuring that chemical and biological weapons there are secure and on providing humanitarian and non-lethal assistance to the rebels.
Panetta criticized Tuesday Iran’s role in the Syria conflict, accusing it of working to form a pro-regime militia in Syria, and warning that Tehran’s growing presence could only aggravate the situation on the ground.
“It is obvious that Iran has been playing a larger role in Syria in many ways,” Panetta said at a joint news conference with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.
“There’s now an indication that they’re trying to develop, trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime,” Panetta said.
Panetta also called on Tehran to stay out of the conflict, saying: “Our hope is that Iran thinks better about how much they do want to get involved ... The Syrian people ought to determine their future, not Iran.”
The United States also lifted sanctions against Hijab Tuesday, as it urged more top officials to abandon the regime.
“This action is being taken because Hijab is no longer a senior official of the government of Syria,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.
“The United States encourages other officials within the Syrian government, in both the political and military ranks, to take similarly courageous steps to reject the Assad regime and stand with the Syrian people,” Treasury official David Cohen said.
State Department spokeswoman Nuland said lifting sanctions on Hijab did not preclude a potential decision by a post-Assad Syrian government to pursue charges against him.
“This is not a judgment about his accountability, which is something for the Syrian people to decide,” Nuland told reporters. “This guy is no longer part of that offensive, and so he should not be subject to sanctions.”
Meanwhile, Syrian warplanes hit a rebel-held district of Aleppo Tuesday, an AFP journalist said, as fighting raged in several neighborhoods of the embattled northern city.
A MiG jet fired several times on the central district of Bab al-Nasr, the journalist said, adding that the southwestern districts of Saif al-Dawla and Salaheddine were also shelled.
Government forces also shelled several suburbs of Damascus, while security forces carried out a second day of raids in the capital, the opposition monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Observatory’s director, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said the conflict has now claimed at least 23,000 lives since March last year.
Most of Tuesday’s casualties were in the governorate of Idlib, Damascus and Deraa, according to the Syrian Revolution General Commission.
In Damascus, residents fled the Qaboun neighborhood, fearing a major military onslaught, as security forces raided the neighborhoods of Midan in the south and Shaghur in the center, the Observatory said.
According to an AFP journalist, security forces also swept the southeastern suburb of Tabbaleh, while the army set up checkpoints at the entrances to Midan and closed off streets to traffic.
Outside the city, government forces shelled the suburbs of Qudsaya and Daraya, while elsewhere in the Governorate of Rural Damascus, a civilian and defecting soldier were killed in the town of Al-Tal, the Observatory said.
In Muhasen in the eastern Deir al-Zor province – where rebels claimed they downed a fighter jet Monday – fierce clashes broke out, according to Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists on the ground.
State-run Syrian TV said gunmen shot and killed Maamoun Zoubi, deputy director of the Health Ministry in Deraa, as he was leaving work. The station said four gunmen shot him dead then took his car and drove away.
Near its border with Syria, the Turkish army staged a new military drill, the Anatolia news agency reported.
Turkish tanks accompanied by advanced armored personnel carriers and tactical missile-launching platforms were deployed at the Oncupinar crossing in southern Kilis province for the drill, the report said.
The drill follows several military exercises at the border after the government warned that it would pursue Kurdish rebels across the frontier.