ALEPPO, Syria — Syria’s former prime minister, the highest profile government figure to defect, said Tuesday the regime was collapsing and controlled barely a third of the conflict-wracked country.
“The Syrian regime only controls 30 percent of Syria’s territory. It has collapsed militarily, economically and morally,” Riad Hijab told a news conference in the Jordanian capital Amman.
Hijab fled to Jordan last week, the latest in a string of defections from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which is becoming increasingly embattled as the 17-month conflict shows no signs of abating.
The United States, which has imposed a raft of tough sanctions to try to force Assad’s departure, reacted by lifting an asset freeze imposed on Hijab.
“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.
Western policymakers hope that a wave of defections will force the collapse of the autocratic government, ending a conflict that seems to be in stalemate with the international community deeply divided over what action to take.
In another blow, rebels claimed Monday they had shot down a Syrian fighter jet and captured its pilot as it battles escalating air attacks by government forces, particularly in the key northern city of Aleppo.
Assad was shaken last month when four top security officials at the heart of his Alawite inner circle were killed in a bomb attack in Damascus claimed by the rebel Free Syrian Army.
“Syria is full of officials and military leaders who are awaiting the right moment to join the revolt,” Hijab said, urging the fractured opposition to unite.
Although a number of senior figures have abandoned the regime, analysts say until military units begin to defect en masse, the Assad family and the top echelon of the military and security services will remain intact.
Hijab’s comments came as fresh fighting for control of key districts of Aleppo erupted while Syrian forces bombarded areas around Damascus and launched a new security operation in the capital, a human rights watchdog said.
An AFP photographer said he heard heavy shelling of the southwestern district of Saif al-Dawla, which army forces advanced on Monday after recapturing the neighbouring area of Salaheddin last week.
Pro-government daily Al-Watan said the capture of Salaheddin was but a “first step” in the retaking of all rebel-held areas of the city.
The metropolis of some 2.7 million people — where communications have been cut for at least three days — is seen as pivotal to the outcome of the conflict, with some referring to it as Syria’s Benghazi, the Libyan city at the heart of the revolt that toppled Moamer Kadhafi’s regime.
In Damascus, security forces raided several districts after a major security operation on Monday, while several suburbs outside the capital were shelled, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A total of 46 people were killed nationwide on Tuesday, it said.
The opposition issued a new appeal Monday for the international community to impose no-fly zones similar to those established during the conflict in Libya amid increasing air strikes by Syrian warplanes.
“We’ve seen a very troubling and despicable uptick in attacks from the air, perpetrated by the Syrian regime,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
Asked if Washington was moving towards enforcing a possible no-fly zone, he said: “We plan for contingencies.”
With Assad increasingly under pressure, a top presidential aide was dispatched Tuesday to China, which has said it wants an immediate ceasefire and political dialogue to halt the bloodshed.
China and Russia are at odds with the West over how to end the fighting, after both traditional Syria allies vetoed UN Security Council resolutions.
China said it had backed the peace plan of outgoing peace envoy Kofi Annan, who announced his resignation earlier this month in the face of the continued violence and the deadlock among world powers.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos also held talks with Syrian officials in Damascus on a regional visit “to draw attention to the deteriorating humanitarian situation” and discuss ways to boost relief efforts.
The conflict has killed more than 23,000 people since March last year, according to the Observatory, while the UN says more than one million people have been displaced and another 140,000 have fled to Syria’s neighbours.
Damascus also faces isolation by fellow Muslim states as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meets in the Saudi City of Mecca to discuss a recommendation for Syria to be suspended from the 57-nation body.
But Iran — Damascus’s closest ally — is vehemently opposed.
Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders issued an open letter to the Syria opposition condemning a series of attacks on pro-government media which it said were “becoming the targets of abduction and murder with increasing frequency”.
“Such practices sadly resemble those used by the Assad regime against opposition journalists,” RSF said.
Rebels also came under fire on Monday after several grisly videos emerged purportedly showing opposition fighters rebels throwing the bodies of postal workers off a roof and a man’s throat being savagely cut.