PARIS/BEIRUT - Reuters
The defection of a Syrian general who is a personal friend of President Bashar al-Assad gave a huge boost to anti-government rebels as Western and Arab states met them in Paris
on Friday to help prise Assad from power.
In some of the strongest U.S. remarks yet on a crisis that has divided the United Nations Security Council along Cold War lines, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Paris
conference that Russia
must "pay a price" for blocking U.N. sanctions that might press Assad into stepping down.
As she spoke, Manaf Tlas, a brigade commander in the Republican Guard who attended military college with Assad and fled to Turkey this week, was on his way to Paris, where his father, Assad's father's defence minister, has also taken up residence, a close family friend told Reuters.
There was no immediate sign that Tlas would throw in his lot with the rebels and an opposition source said he had no plans to attend Friday's meeting.
But his defection is the clearest signal yet that some in Assad's inner circle think his days in power are numbered, as an uprising that began in March 2011 with a groundswell of peaceful protest turns into a civil war with strong sectarian overtones.
While the lightly armed rebels are no match for Syria's large and well-equipped army, their hope lies in eroding loyalty and conviction within Assad's establishment to the point where it loses its hold on power.
Syrian armour pushed into the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun on Thursday, activists said, adding 11 victims to a death toll dissidents and Western leaders put at over 15,000.
French President Francois Hollande
urged stiffer sanctions against Assad and more support for the rebels at the start of a meeting of Western and Arab states who back the uprising.
"Bashar al-Assad must go," Hollande told a meeting of foreign ministers and senior diplomats from the "Friends of Syria" group. "It's in the interest of Syria, of its neighbours and everybody who wants peace in the region."
Clinton renewed Washington's call for a U.N. sanctions resolution, something that was twice blocked last year by the veto power held by Moscow and Beijing in the Security Council.
And she called for states to penalise Russia
"I will tell you very frankly, I don't think Russia
believe they are paying any price at all - nothing at all - for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime," Clinton said.
"The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia
will pay a price, because they are holding up progress - blockading it. That is no longer tolerable."
Completing the trio of Western veto-holding powers on the Council, Foreign Secretary William Hague for Britain told the conference that counties which failed to impose sanctions were allowing Assad's forces to go on killing.
meeting will, among other things, focus on firming up sanctions and closing loopholes such as continued Greek
purchases of Syrian phosphates, French
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the newspaper Aujourd'hui en France.
Tlas, whose father Mustafa was defence minister under Assad's father for three decades, is a Sunni
Muslim, from the majority community that has been the focus of the uprising against a ruling class rooted in Assad's minority Alawite sect.