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Be careful not to overstate the significance of individual resignations in Syria

For months now, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has been described as "increasingly isolated" and "embattled". Yet the regime has so far held fast, despite growing discomfort with massacres of civilians and a rising death toll: around 13,000 armed and unarmed opponents of Assad have been killed, and around 4,300 members of the security services.

Now, in a boost for the opposition, a senior diplomat has defected. The Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, called for the military to turn against the regime, saying that this would defend Syria from foreign intervention. In a statement released on Wednesday, he said: "I announced my resignation as Syrian ambassador to Iraq as I also declare my defection from the Syrian Baath party. I urge all honest members of this party to follow my path because the regime has turned it [the party] to an instrument to kill people and their aspiration to freedom."

Accusing the Assad family and its allies of corruption and "destroying society" for 40 years, he added: "Every Syrian man has to join the revolution to remove this nightmare and this gang."

Fares, who said repeatedly that the government has been killing civilians during the recent crackdown, is not the first person to defect; he follows Manaf Tlas, a Brigadier General in the elite Republican Guard and a close friend of Assad's. However, his departure is important. Mr. Fares is a senior diplomat with close ties to the Syrian security services, and the Syrian National Council has claimed that this is just the first in a series of major diplomatic defections.

With armed insurgents unable to match the firepower of the regime and western powers reluctant to intervene, defections are viewed as an effective way of undermining the regime. The last diplomat to resign was Bassam Imadi, Syrian ambassador to Sweden until December. Now a member of the SNC, he told Al-Jazeera that the defections of Fares and Tlas are an indication that people recognise that the end of Assad's rule is near, and are leaving a sinking ship.

The situation in Syria is anything but simple, with sectarian divisions dominating the political landscape, rebel groups splintered, and a significant portion of society still backing Assad. In this context, it is difficult to extrapolate exactly what Fares's defection means. While most of the political and military establishment are Alawites – a sect of Shi'a Muslims – both Tlas and Fares are Sunnis. Their defections may indicate that the Sunni business elite – initially slow to support the uprising, which started with poorer Sunnis – could be growing more alienated from the regime. Fares is highly influential among tribal communities in eastern Syria, where he comes from.

Thus far, Syria has not seen a large number of defections from government, and the SNC hopes that a few high profile resignations will create a domino effect and pressurise Assad from within. Whether this will happen remains to be seen over the coming months, and in the face of an intransigent regime and a complex conflict, it is important not to overstate the significance of individual resignations. However, if this is indeed the start of something bigger, it has the potential to deal a serious blow to the regime.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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