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Syria Envoy to Iraq Appears to Defect, a First in Conflict (WSJ) WALL STREET JOURNAL) By NOUR MALAS in Beirut and ALI A. NABHAN in Baghdad 07/12/12) Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303919504577521183637622726.html
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Syria´s ambassador to Iraq defected from President Bashar al-Assad´s regime, a senior Iraqi official and Syrian opposition leaders said Wednesday, the first of a serving ambassador in the country´s 17 monthlong civil conflict.
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His apparent defection would mark the second high-profile official to abandon Syria´s government in a week, signaling cracks within a tightly-knit regime that has so far managed to avoid defections despite intense international pressure to halt escalating violence.
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Nawaf Fares, a former provincial governor in Syria and an envoy to Baghdad since 2008, left his post in protest of his government´s crackdown on political dissent, said two members of the opposition Syrian National Council who are close to the situation. A senior Iraqi official confirmed Mr. Fares had fled his post and said he was no longer in Iraq.
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"What is certain is that he is not inside Iraq and what is also certain is that he has announced his defection outside Iraq," said the official.
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A man who identified himself as Mr. Fares appeared late Wednesday on television station al-Jazeera late Wednesday to announce his resignation and intention to join the opposition.
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Last Thursday, Manaf Tlass, a longtime friend of Syria´s president and commander in the elite Republican Guard military unit, fled Syria in what appeared to be the highest-ranking Syrian defection yet.
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Ahmad Ramadan, a member of the Syrian National Council´s eight-person executive panel, said Mr. Fares first fled Baghdad to Erbil, where Syrian activists could better guarantee his safety in Iraq´s semiautonomous Kurdish region. "I am personally in touch with Iraqi officials for his safety," Mr. Ramadan said. Before Mr. Fares, no serving diplomats had yet defected from the Assad regime over a bloody crackdown that the opposition says has killed as many as 16,000 Syrians. Mr. Fares—who appears to have close ties to the regime through previous posts in local government— is one of several diplomats who have contacted the opposition about defecting, he added.
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Mr. Fares served as governor in three Syrian provinces in the decade up to 2008 before being appointed ambassador to Iraq, according to a profile published by the state news agency SANA at the time of his appointment.
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Iraq and Syria had re-established diplomatic ties in 2006 after an estrangement of more than two decades born from political hostilities and competition between Syria´s Baath regime and its counterpart in Baghdad, led at the time by Saddam Hussein.
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The two countries recalled their ambassadors in late 2009, after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused Damascus of harboring insurgent leaders leading attacks against several ministries in Baghdad that killed and wounded hundreds.
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Iraq´s Shiite-led government has since repaired relations with the Syrian regime, and has over the past year taken a more guarded position toward the mainly Sunni-led Syrian opposition to Mr. Assad, who belongs to the Shiite-linked Alawite sect. Iraq now has an official policy of neutrality in the Syrian conflict and has pushed for a peaceful resolution.
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A Sunni Muslim from Syria´s majority religion, Mr. Fares headed the ruling Baath Party branch in the early 1990s in his hometown of Deir el-Zour, where he hails from a prominent tribe. The eastern province of Deir el-Zour borders Iraq and has been one of the main flash points in the battle between Mr. Assad´s regime and the armed opposition.
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Some opposition activists said Mr. Farest was in Turkey, where Mr. Tlass—the powerful Republican Guard commander—first fled to from Syria, before joining members of his family in France. A spokesman for Turkey´s foreign ministry said he had no information on Mr. Fares´s whereabouts.
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Bassma Kodmani, head of foreign relations for the Syrian National Council, said Mr. Fares´s profile as a diplomat once close to the regime complicated where he would go next. "We don´t have a lot of information," Ms. Kodmani said by telephone from Moscow, where council leaders are meeting with Russian officials. "All we know is he was a decent man, a former governor."
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The defection of officials closely linked to the regime has become an issue of debate among the opposition since the high-profile defection of Mr. Tlass, son of a former defense minister. In the week since he fled Syria, his name has become linked in opposition circles as a potential candidate to head any would-be transitional government in Syria, a prospect many in the opposition immediately rejected given the Tlass family´s historic ties with the Assad regime.
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—Sam Dagher in Beirut contributed to this article. (Copyright © Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) 07/12/12)
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