Rebels say Syrian vice president defects, regime denies claim

By Saad Abedine and Joe Sterling

(CNN) — Conflicting reports emerged Saturday about whether Syria’s vice president has defected.

A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army said Saturday that Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa has fled the regime.

Syrian state-run TV did not explicitly say if al-Sharaa had defected, but it reported the vice president’s office issued a statement saying al-Sharaa “has never at any moment thought of leaving the homeland to whatever direction.”

If al-Sharaa did defect, it would mark the highest-level departure from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime yet.

The news comes amid a stream of resignations by Syrian officials in recent weeks, including Republican Guard Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas and Prime Minister Riyad Hijab. Like al-Sharaa, the men are Sunnis who held top posts in a government dominated by the country’s Alawite minority.

Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees of Syria opposition network, said al-Sharaa’s defection would suggest “the regime is collapsing very quickly.”

“If confirmed, (this) represents yet another high-level official who sees that the al-Assad regime is a sinking ship,” she said. “I expect to see additional defections in both the military and civilian sectors in the coming days.”

Observers view al-Sharaa’s power and influence as more significant than the prime minister, who only served in the post for weeks. He has more clout having long been a prominent, loyal member of the regime’s old guard having served as foreign minister under al-Assad and his late father, Hafez, for more than 20 years and vice president since 2006.

Recently, state TV showed him attending funerals of high-level government officials killed in a July blast in Damascus. Al-Sharaa headed meetings with the former U.N. and Arab League point man on Syria, Kofi Annan, and international officials visiting Syria.

Louai Miqdad, the spokesman for the rebel army, said al-Sharaa left Damascus more than a week ago and fled to Daraa to try to make sure his relatives, close proteges and other officials would be secure. Al-Sharaa is from Daraa province, the area bordering Jordan where the regime’s violent crackdown against protesters began in March 2011.

The rebel spokesman said he thinks the Syrian regime intensified attacks in Daraa province recently to assassinate al-Sharaa before he left the country.

“Farouq al-Sharaa did defect, but we were trying to get him through to Jordan,” Miqdad told CNN on Saturday.

He said rebel army leaders “lost communications with our commanders in Daraa who were trying to get him to cross the borders to Jordan,” expressing concerns government forces may have detained some of al-Sharaa’s relatives to compel him to surrender.

By Saturday morning, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency had removed al-Sharaa’s profile from its website. SANA said a press release from al-Sharaa’s office said that, since the crisis began, he has been working “with different parties to end the bloodshed” through “comprehensive dialogue” aimed at “a national reconciliation.”

The release stressed al-Sharaa’s welcome of Lakhdar Brahimi’s appointment as the U.N. new envoy to Syria and support for his “commitment to obtaining a unified stance by the Security Council to carry out his difficult mission.”

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said there had been talk that al-Sharaa’s defection was in the works and noting “a lot of similar Sunnis” like Tlas and Hijab “are doing this.”

Known as being “very stern (and) straightforward,” al-Sharaa has been “part of the Sunni veneer that al-Assad built around the regime.”

He may have defected “because the battle now has become so sectarian,” with an opposition dominated by Sunnis and pro-regime Alawites squaring off, Tabler said.

During Arab League meetings in recent months, al-Sharaa was mentioned as a successor to al-Assad under a transition plan similar to the one in Yemen, where the president left office and the vice president took over.

Jouejati, from the opposition LCC, notes it has been widely reported that al-Sharaa lost relatives in Daraa during the uprising and has been “under near-constant surveillance.”

“These may be factors in his favor in the post-Assad phase,” she said, as to his possibility of becoming a transition figure. “But he would have to be accepted by the Syrian people. He has thus far represented a brutal dictatorship and his defection at this late stage in the revolution may be too little too late. “

Fighting in the long-running civil war continued Saturday, opposition activists said, once again leading to scores of deaths.

Warplanes attacked the western city of Houla, shelling engulfed the Damascus area, and a military intelligence branch in the eastern city of Qamishli was bombed. Battles raged in Latakia, Daraa and Aleppo, as well.

Ramadan ended Saturday with at least 172 people killed nationwide, according to the LCC. The toll includes 70 killed in Damascus and its suburbs, including 40 people discovered in the Tal area. Another 30 were killed in Deir Ezzor, 27 in Daraa (mostly in Hirak) and 26 in Aleppo.

Some 4,685 people have been killed since the Muslim holy month began 30 days ago, the opposition network said. More than one-third of those — 1,540 people — died in and around Damascus, while 943 were killed in Aleppo. There were more than 500 fatalities in the provinces of Idlib, Homs and Daraa during Ramadan as well, the LCC reported.

Meanwhile, the mandate of the U.N. observer mission that had been tasked to monitor Annan’s six-point peace plan, which included a failed ceasefire, ends on Sunday.

But Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, the mission’s head, told reporters the United Nations will maintain a presence after the 300 military observers and the other personnel depart.

“We will continue the search to move from violence to dialogue,” Gaye said.

The U.N. Supervision Mission began monitoring a ceasefire agreed to by the government and rebels in April. But it never took hold, and violence soon surged.

Even though the mission has been criticized as ineffectual, Gaye said it has an “important legacy.”

“At the end of the day we have paved the way for a united agreement by the Security Council for the United Nations to stay in this country for the search of peace and ending violence,” he said.

CNN’s Holly Yan, Chelsea Carter and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.

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