Putin chides US; Assad ally defects
September 05, 2013 - 4:01:44 am
AMMAN: General Ali Habib, a former Syrian defence minister, has become the most senior member of President Bashar Al Assad’s ruling Alawite sect to defect, opposition figures said yesterday, as Washington debated a military strike on the war-racked country.
Habib had been under house arrest since he resigned in protest at Assad’s crackdown on demonstrators in 2011 but had reached the Turkish border late on Tuesday with Western help, Kamal Al Labwani of the Syrian National Coalition said.
Other sources also said Habib had fled but Syrian state television denied he had left his home. Turkey’s foreign minister said he could not confirm the general had defected. A Gulf source said that Habib had crossed the Turkish frontier on Tuesday with three other people. He was then taken across the border in a convoy of vehicles.
Kerry said he did not know if the report of Habib’s defection was correct but “there are currently defections taking place, I think there are something like 60 to 100 in the last day or so, officers and enlisted personnel.”
Washington and Syria’s main backer Russia remained publicly at odds over US plans for a possible military strike but both raised the prospect of easing the deadlock when President Vladimir Putin hosts world leaders at a G20 summit today. US President Barack Obama said he would continue to try to persuade Putin of the need for punitive strikes on Assad for using chemical weapons when the two meet in St. Petersburg.
But Putin again questioned Western evidence. He accused US Secretary of State John Kerry outright of lying when, in urging Congress to approve strikes on Syria, Kerry played down the role of Al Qaeda in the rebel forces. “Al Qaeda units are the main military echelon, and they know this,” Putin said. “He is lying and knows he is lying. It’s sad.”
Having surprised friends and foes alike by seeking approval from Congress before attacking, Obama has been working to build support at home and abroad. In Stockholm en route for Russia, he appealed to lawmakers’ consciences: “America and Congress’s credibility is on the line,” he said. “The question is how credible is Congress when it passes a treaty saying we have to forbid the use of chemical weapons.”
Earlier, Putin had said that he could not absolutely “rule out” Russia supporting a UN Security Council resolution to punish Assad — if it could be proved he had used poison gas. Briefing members of congress in Washington, Kerry said those comments were “hopeful” and “there may be a road forward where Russia would consider not blocking action”.
A senior Western official said that, while Moscow was unlikely to say so in public, there were signs Russian officials believe Assad was indeed responsible for the deaths on August 21 and that it had strained Russian support for him — providing an opening for a new, concerted drive to end the conflict.
However, Putin’s characteristically blunt tone towards the US position appeared to limit prospects for a breakthrough in a stalemate that has prevented international action to rein in the conflict.
Following the failure of British Prime Minister David Cameron to win parliamentary backing for air strikes last week, France and Turkey are the only military powers lining up behind Obama. The French parliament debated Syria, though President Francois Hollande does not need approval for action. His foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said using force against Assad could pave the way for a new round of diplomacy. Reuters