US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pleaded once more for global sanctions against the Syrian regime as president Bashar Assad was rocked by the defection of a top aide.
Frustrated by the slow pace of diplomacy, Mrs Clinton accused Russia and China of standing in the way.
Her comments came as activists reported that Syrian forces killed at least 25 people, arrested scores of others and torched more than 100 homes while seizing the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun from rebels.
Speaking after a 100-nation conference in Paris, she said Syria’s “regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet” by abandoning the four-decade Assad dynasty.
She spoke after Western officials reported top Assad aide Brig Gen Manaf Tlass had left the country.
“Those with the closest knowledge of Assad’s actions and crimes are moving away,” she told reporters. “We think that is a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime.”
Gen Tlass’ departure from Syria provided welcome news for the US and its European and Arab partners after another gathering of the Friends of Syria group that demonstrated the international community’s continued inability to end 16 months of brutal government repression and civil war that has killed some 14,000 people, according to activists.
The defection of Gen Tlass, a member of the elite Republican Guards and a son of a former defence minister, is the first major crack in the upper reaches of Assad’s regime, which has remained largely cohesive throughout the uprising.
He has not spoken publicly since his defection and his whereabouts remain unknown, though French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that the general was en route to France, where his sister lives.
Mr Fabius later backtracked, saying he was not sure of Gen Tlass’ final destination.
Even those closest to him “are starting to realise that you cannot support a butcher like Mr Bashar Assad,” Mr Fabius said.
Hassem Hashimi, a member of Syria’s opposition National Council, said the development could open more cracks in Mr Assad’s power base. “The defection of Tlass will encourage a lot of similar people to defect as well,” he said.
As the son of long-time Defence Minister Mustafa Tlass, the general was a member of the Syrian Baath Party aristocracy, part of a privileged class that flourished under the Assad dynasty. He also was one of the most important Sunni figures in Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime.
Gen Tlass’ father and Mr Assad’s father, Hafez, had been close friends since their days in the Syrian military academy in Homs and became even closer after being posted to Cairo in the late 1950s when Egypt and Syria merged into the United Arab Republic – a union that lasted three years.
After Hafez Assad rose to power in the early 1970s, Mustafa Tlass became defence minister and the Syrian president’s most trusted lieutenant.
When Hafez died of a heart attack in 2000, Gen Tlass helped engineer Bashar’s succession to the presidency and guided the inexperienced young doctor. Gen Tlass was the leader of a coterie of old regime figures that critics blamed for reining in moves to liberalise the Syrian regime.
Mrs Clinton referred to Gen Tlass as a “very close and long-time ally of Assad and his father.”
“These defections send a message to Assad, but perhaps more importantly they send a message to those still left, which I hope they hear and heed,” she told reporters.
“We have no doubt about the outcome here. We know that the Assad regime will fall. The question is how many more people will have to die before that happens. We want to see those on the inside hasten the day when a new transition can begin.”
The gathering in France’s capital aimed to win wider support for a Syrian transition plan unveiled last week by UN mediator Kofi Annan.
Joined by America’s allies, Mrs Clinton called for “real and immediate consequences for non-compliance, including sanctions,” against the Assad regime.
But with neither Moscow nor Beijing in attendance, much remained dependent on persuading the two reluctant UN veto-wielding powers to force Mr Assad into abiding by a ceasefire and the transition strategy.
Mrs Clinton urged governments around the world to direct their pressure toward Russia and China as well.
“What can every nation and group represented here do?” she asked. “I ask you to reach out to Russia and China, and to not only urge but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
“I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all – nothing at all – for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime,” she added.
“The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price. Because they are holding up progress, blockading it. That is no longer tolerable.”
It is unlikely the latest in a serious of US pleas for Russian co-operation on Syria will help.
The increasing exasperation with Moscow is partly a reflection of American powerlessness to stop the violence, with the Obama administration having effectively ruled out a military intervention or providing weapons to Syria’s rebels.
That leaves the United Nations and the paths of increasing the economic pressure on Assad’s regime and its political isolation. Russia and China have twice blocked UN condemnations of Syria’s government and just last weekend worked to water down Mr Annan’s transition plan so that the Syrian leader and the opposition would have vetoes over interim government candidates.
The Kremlin rejected the anti-Assad call today, with Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov saying that Mrs Clinton’s comments contradicted Mrs Annan’s plan, which Washington and Moscow agreed to.