DAMASCUS // The defection of Nawaf Al Fares, Syria's ambassador to Iraq, is the strongest sign yet that President Bashar Al Assad is losing the support of Sunni members of his inner circle.
A senior figure in the Aaqidat tribe, Syria's largest and most powerful Arab clan centred in Deir Ezzor province, Mr Al Fares was an archetypical Sunni insider within a regime dominated by Alawites.
His defection, the first by a serving Syrian diplomat, was made more significant by the stark terms in which he called on the Syrian army to turn its guns on the regime, and by the influence he potentially wields in the country's eastern tribal regions, from where many rank-and-file soldiers are conscripted and where tribal codes are still valued.
"Where is the honour in killing your countrymen?" he asked in a video announcing his defection, aired on Al Jazeera TV late on Wednesday. "The nation is all the people, not just one person in particular, and the allegiance is to the people, not a dictator who kills his people."
Addressing members of the Syrian military, he said: "Turn your cannons and your tanks towards the criminals in the regime who are killing the people."
Those blunt comments contrast with the silence following the defection of General Manaf Tlass last week. Since fleeing Syria, nothing has been heard from Gen Tlass, the son of a former defence minister and personal friend of Mr Al Assad's, prompting speculation he had simply abandoned the regime rather than actively changed sides.
Continuing bloodshed during 16 months of revolt has turned Syria's eastern tribal lands into a powder keg, slipping out of Damascus's control. Pro-regime tribal leaders there are under growing street-level pressure to abandon the government and join an armed uprising.
With the defection of Mr Al Fares, who along with his brothers inherited the mantle of leading sheikhs in the Aaqidat clan, other lesser tribal figures allied to the regime may now feel compelled - or freed - to take the same step.
In a statement yesterday, Syria's foreign ministry said the defecting ambassador had been "relieved of his duties" and should face "legal and disciplinary accountability" for failing to defend the country's "stances and issues".
A Syrian political analyst said the defection was important, given Mr Al Fares' "heavyweight" status.
"This is not a simple soldier or a minor bureaucrat. This is a man with connections throughout the country, someone the regime trusted, someone who knows how the security services work, who knows the insides of the regime," he said.
Based in Abu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraq border, the Aaqidat tribe extends through Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
It was Hafez Al Assad, the former Syrian president, who ushered Mr Al Fares into the network ruling Syria, promoting him from the police to head the feared political security branch in Latakia province - home of the Al Assad family.
From there he was made chief of the Baath party in Deir Ezzor province, his own tribe's stronghold, a position he held until 1998 when, having impressed Hafez Al Assad, he was made the governor of Latakia.
He is said to have initially turned down the job offer - few Syrians had the confidence or stature to say no to Hafez Al Assad, a man who brooked no dissent - telling the then president he would not have the authority to get things done in a province containing so many influential Alawites who would easily be able to pull rank on a Sunni governor.
Only after the president told him he would have complete backing and full authority - supposedly telling the new governor to "consider himself as Hafez Al Assad in Latakia" - did he take up the job.
Physically imposing, renowned as a ladies man and usually seen smoking Marlboro cigarettes, Mr Al Fares earned something of a reputation for being non-corrupt in a country riddled by graft, and as a fearless speaker unconcerned about arguing with other regime members.
He was tipped to become interior minister, a post reserved for ultra-loyalist figures with a strong security services background, only for a period of ill health to prevent him taking up the job.
Mr Al Fares was later given significant government posts when Bashar Al Assad took over as president, serving under him as the governor of Idlib and Quneitra before, in 2008, being made Syria's first ambassador to Iraq in almost 30 years.
The authorities in Baghdad yesterday said the defecting ambassador had left the country for Qatar. Mahmut Osman, a spokesman the opposition Syrian National Council said he expected Mr Al Fares in Turkey for talks with anti-Assad groups.
Mr Osman also said he expected the defection of more senior officials in the future. "We have heard from many who want to flee," he said, adding the Assad regime threatened reprisals against family members of officials who deserted.
Activists have, however, expressed disquiet about such a regime insider - someone who served with the reviled security services - joining their ranks.
Meanwhile, diplomatic wrangling over Syria continued at the United Nations, after western states called for sanctions to be imposed against the Syrian regime if it failed to implement a peace plan brokered by UN special envoy Kofi Annan within a strict 10-day time limit.
Russia, a key ally of Mr Al Assad, which together with China has twice used veto powers to block security council resolutions critical of Syria, indicated yesterday it would not support any sanctions.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said yesterday in Cambodia "we do see momentum building" against Mr Al Assad,
In the latest clashes, Syrian government troops shelled and then stormed Treimsa village in the central province of Hama yesterday, monitors and activists said, while at least 45 people were killed across the country. Lebanese security sources said Syrian troops fired off dozens of shells in areas bordering northern and eastern Lebanon, adding that at least four people were injured inside Lebanese territory.
* With additional reporting from Thomas Seibert in Istanbul and Joe Lauria in New York