Nawaf Fares is seen here, in this file picture taken December 7, 2006. Nawaf al-Fares, Syria's ambassador to Iraq defected in protest at the military crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad's forces against a 16-month revolt, Syrian opposition sources said on July 12, 2012. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri/Files (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS HEADSHOT) Image Credit: REUTERS

Beirut: Syria’s ambassador to Iraq has defected and urged the army to “turn your guns on the criminals” of President Bashar Al Assad’s government, giving the anti-Assad uprising one of its biggest boosts in 16 months of bloodshed.

Nawaf Al Fares, who has close ties to the Syrian security services, was the first senior diplomat to desert Al Assad, following hard on the heels of Manaf Tlas, a brigadier general in the elite Republican Guard and a close friend of Al Assad.

Al Assad’s swift and bloody crackdown on what began as a broad, peaceful pro-democracy movement helped turn it into an armed rebellion. But the insurgents cannot match the army’s firepower, and instead need to erode the loyalty and conviction within Assad’s establishment to loosen its hold on power.

Tlas, the son of a veteran former Syrian defence minister, has made no public comment since fleeing to Paris. But Fares posted a video statement on Facebook on Wednesday that repeatedly said government forces had been killing civilians.

“I declare that I have joined, from this moment, the ranks of the revolution of the Syrian people,” he said.

“I ask ... the members of the military to join the revolution and to defend the country and the citizens. Turn your guns on the criminals from this regime ...

“Every Syrian man has to join the revolution to remove this nightmare and this gang,” he said, accusing the Al Assad family and its allies of corruption and “destroying society” for 40 years.

The defection was seized on by Assad’s opponents, but also by Western and Sunni Arab powers who insist, like the opposition, that Al Assad must leave power in any political settlement for Syria.

In Damascus, a terse government statement said: “The Syrian foreign ministry declares that Nawaf Al Fares has been relieved of his duties and he no longer has any link to our embassy in Baghdad or the foreign ministry. They embassy in Iraq will continue carrying out its normal duties.” “This is just the beginning of a series of defections on the diplomatic level. We are in touch with several ambassadors,” said Mohammad Sermini, a member of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council.

Al Assad’s opponents say just under 13,000 armed and unarmed opponents of Assad, and around 4,300 members of security forces loyal to Damascus, have been killed since he launched a crackdown 16 months ago, using tanks and helicopter gunships to attack rebel strongholds inside Syria’s biggest cities.

With events on the ground outrunning diplomatic efforts, Britain on Wednesday circulated a draft resolution, backed by the United States, France and Germany, to make compliance with a transition plan drafted by international envoy Kofi Annan enforceable under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.

This would allow the council to authorise actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.

Annan himself asked the 15-member council to agree on “clear consequences” if the Syrian government or opposition failed to comply with his plan, which has produced neither a ceasefire nor political dialogue since it was agreed in April.

The draft in particular threatens the Syrian government with sanctions if it does not stop using heavy weapons and withdraw its troops from towns and cities within 10 days.

But Al Assad’s chief backer on the UN Security Council, Russia, remained firmly in the Syrian leader’s camp, having submitted its own draft resolution on Tuesday that made no mention of sanctions.