PARIS - International leaders Friday urged the UN to ratchet up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by threatening his regime with tough sanctions, as the defection of a top general rocked his inner circle.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also issued a clarion call for all nations to do more to push for political change in Syria and end the 16-month conflict, while lambasting Russia and China for “blockading” progress.
The Friends of Syria talks in the French capital took place amid news that one of Assad’s most trusted inner circle had defected in what would be a major blow to the regime as it battles the opposition. “General Munaf Tlass defected three days ago,” a source close to the Syrian government said on condition of anonymity. Tlass, the highest-ranking military officer to have abandoned the Assad regime, was on his way to Paris to join his wife and sister, Nahed Ojjeh, widow of Saudi millionaire arms dealer Akram Ojjeh, said the source. A general in the elite Republican Guard charged with protecting the regime, he is the son of former defence minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of Assad’s late father and predecessor, Hafez.
“A senior official from the Syrian regime, a commander in the Republican Guard, has defected and is headed for Paris,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed at a news conference, although his final destination was unclear.
Participants at the Paris meeting called on the UN Security Council to urgently adopt the six-point peace plan drawn up by UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan under the UN Charter’s Chapter 7.
But the final statement stressed that any immediate action under Article 41 provided only for non-military intervention. French President Francois Hollande also pushed for the Security Council to get tough with Damascus, while the Syrian opposition called for humanitarian corridors and a no-fly zone. The Annan plan, which insists on a cessation of violence by all sides, has made little headway and activists say an estimated 16,500 people have now died since the uprising began in March last year.
“We should go back and ask for a resolution in the Security Council that imposes real and immediate consequences for non-compliance, including sanctions,” ranging from economic measures to military force, Clinton said. Russia reacted immediately with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov “categorically” rejecting “the formulation that Russia supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the situation that has developed in Syria”. Although Moscow did not attend the meeting, a diplomatic source insisted that “Russian political and security circles are changing their position”.