- Associated Press - Thursday, July 12, 2012

BEIRUT | Syria’s highest-ranking diplomat to defect to the opposition has dismissed the main international plan seeking to stop the violence, saying nothing short of President Bashar Assad’s departure is acceptable.

Nawaf Fares, formerly Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview Thursday on the Al-Jazeera satellite channel that only force can remove Mr. Assad.

Mr. Fares announced that he was joining the anti-Assad revolution in a video Wednesday, saying he was siding with “the revolution” against Mr. Assad.

He was the second high-level regime official to quit in one week. The other - Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister who fled Syria last week - has not spoken publicly and does not appear to have joined the rebels.

Earlier Thursday, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Mr. Fares should be punished after his defection to the opposition.

In a statement reported by Syria’s state news agency, the ministry said Mr. Fares had been “relieved of his duties” and should face “legal and disciplinary accountability.”

His and Gen. Tlass‘ defections suggest some cracks in the Assad regime are appearing at senior levels although the core of Mr. Assad’s government has remained loyal despite growing international pressure.

Opposition leaders and Western officials said they hoped Mr. Fares‘ defection would encourage others to leave, too.

Syria’s unrest began with protests in March 2011, but has since evolved into an armed insurgency with scores of rebel groups across the country clashing with government troops and attacking their bases and convoys. Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed.

The Syrian government blames the uprising on armed gangs backed by foreign powers to weaken the state. It says more than 4,000 members of the security forces have been killed.

In Paris, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari confirmed Mr. Fares‘ defection, saying he quit while outside of Iraq.

Mr. Fares condemned the Assad regime in a statement broadcast Wednesday on the satellite channel Al-Jazeera.

“Where is the honor in killing your countrymen? Where is the national allegiance? The nation is all the people, not one person in particular,” he said. “The allegiance is to the people, not to a dictator who kills his people.”

It was unclear where Mr. Fares recorded the statement. His current whereabouts remain unknown.

Appointed to the Baghdad post four years ago, Mr. Fares was the first Syrian ambassador to Iraq in 26 years. Like Gen. Tlass, he is a member of the privileged Sunni elite in a regime dominated by Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect.