Syrian Regime ‘Collapsing,’ Says Former Prime Minister

The Syrian regime is “collapsing emotionally and politically,” former Prime Minister Riad Hijab said in his first public appearance since defecting to Jordan.

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta predicted the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite a “growing presence” in Syria of Iranians providing Assad’s forces with training and other assistance. He said Iran has been helping develop the Shabiha militia, the pro-regime Alawite thugs that rebels blame for atrocities against civilians including systematic rapes and the murder of children.

“We are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is a deep concern,” Panetta said yesterday at a news conference.

In Amman, Hijab made a public appeal for Syrian troops and officials still loyal to Assad to join the opposition and abandon the “enemy of God.”

Calling on the opposition to unite against a government that is killing its own people, Hijab told journalists yesterday that ‘the regime is collapsing emotionally and politically” and now controls no more than 30 percent of Syria. He added that he is innocent of the acts committed by Assad’s administration.

Hijab is the most senior defector since the uprising against the Assad government began last year and spoke hours before the Organization of Islamic Cooperation met in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca to consider further isolating Syria though exclusion from the 57-member group. Iran has set the scene for a diplomatic showdown by pledging to oppose the move.

Iranian Objections

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters in Jeddah that his country would oppose the suspension of Assad’s government, which has been recommended by the group’s foreign ministers.

“Suspending does not mean that the problem will be solved,” he said. “With such a reaction, you just erase the problem.”

The meeting is being attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad together with leaders from other Muslim states who are being asked to agree the move as a response to 17 months of civil conflict that has killed more than 21,000 people, according to estimates from the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November.

Iran “wouldn’t agree to the plan for the exclusion of Syria,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters yesterday.

The OIC helps to safeguard “the true values of Islam and the Muslims” and works to resolve the settlement of conflicts, according to its website.

‘Courageous Steps’

The U.S. Treasury Department lifted sanctions imposed on Hijab last month, according to an e-mailed statement yesterday.

“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,” David S. Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in the statement.

State television reported today that an explosion struck near a military compound in the capital, Damascus, injuring three people. Explosives placed in an oil truck blew up in a parking space, it said. Al Jazeera television broadcast footage of black smoke billowing over the center of the city.

Syrian opposition fighters Aug. 13 said they’d shot down a government MiG-23 on a bombing run over eastern Syria. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said the warplane crashed due to a “technical problem” during a training mission.

No-Fly Zone

Establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, sought by rebel leaders, is “not a front-burner issue for us,” Panetta said.

Panetta said the U.S. is focusing its efforts on providing humanitarian aid to Syrians, monitoring the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles, and providing non-lethal assistance to rebel fighters. Persian Gulf countries are providing “more aggressive assistance,” Panetta said in a confirmation they are supplying weapons.

All those efforts are having an impact as shown by defections and problems withing the Syrian military, he said.

“I think that it is a matter of time before we’re going to be successful in bringing Assad down and allowing the Syrian people to determine their future,” he said.

A United Nations-arranged cease-fire, agreed to in April, has failed to halt fighting. Syrian government forces killed at least 83 people yesterday according to Al Arabiya, which cited information from the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for an intensification of planning for a Syria without Assad in a phone call Aug. 13 with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

The Syrian president’s special envoy, Buthaina Shaaban, was in Beijing for talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website. China is also considering inviting Syrian opposition groups to visit the country, Qin said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Fiona MacDonald in Kuwait at fmacdonald4@bloomberg.net; David Lerman in Washington at dlerman1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Shaji Mathew at shajimathew@bloomberg.net; John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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