PARIS – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday hailed an accelerating wave of defections in President Bashar Assad's inner circle as the United States and its international allies pleaded once again for global sanctions against the Syrian regime. Frustrated by the slow pace of diplomacy, Clinton lambasted Russia and China for standing in the way.
Speaking after a 100-nation conference in Paris, Clinton said Syria's "regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet" by abandoning the four-decade Assad dynasty. She spoke after Western officials reported top Assad aide aide Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass had left the country.
"Those with the closest knowledge of Assad's actions and crimes are moving away," Clinton told reporters. "We think that is a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime."
Tlass' departure from Syria provided welcome news for the U.S. and its European and Arab partners after another gathering of the "Friends of Syria" group that demonstrated the international community's continued inability to end 16 months of bloodshed that activists say has killed some 14,000 people.
The defection of Tlass, a member of the elite Republican Guards and a son of a former defense minister, is the first major crack in the upper reaches of Assad's regime, which has remained largely cohesive throughout the uprising.
Tlass has not spoken publicly since his defection and his whereabouts remain unknown, though French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that the general was en route to France, where Tlass' sister lives. Fabius later backtracked, saying he was not sure of Tlass' final destination.
Even those closest to him "are starting to realize that you cannot support a butcher like Mr. Bashar Assad," Fabius said.
Hassem Hashimi, a member of Syria's opposition National Council, said the development could open more cracks in Assad's power base. "The defection of Tlass will encourage a lot of similar people to defect as well," he told The Associated Press in Paris.
As the son of longtime Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, the general was a member of the Syrian Baath Party aristocracy, part of a privileged class that flourished under the Assad dynasty. He also was one of the most important Sunni figures in Syria's Alawite-dominated regime.
Tlass' father and Assad's father, Hafez, had been close friends since their days in the Syrian military academy in Homs and became even closer after being posted to Cairo in the late 1950s when Egypt and Syria merged into the United Arab Republic — a union that lasted three years. After Hafez Assad rose to power in the early 1970s, Mustafa Tlass became defense minister and the Syrian president's most trusted lieutenant.
When Hafez died of a heart attack in 2000, Tlass helped engineer Bashar's succession to the presidency and guided the inexperienced young doctor. Tlass was the leader of a coterie of old regime figures that critics blamed for reining in moves to liberalize the Syrian regime.
Clinton referred to Tlass as a "very close and long-time ally of Assad and his father."
"These defections send a message to Assad, but perhaps more importantly they send a message to those still left, which I hope they hear and heed," she told reporters. "We have no doubt about the outcome here. We know that the Assad regime will fall. The question is how many more people will have to die before that happens. We want to see those on the inside hasten the day when a new transition can begin."
The gathering in France's capital aimed to win wider support for a Syrian transition plan unveiled last week by U.N. mediator Kofi Annan. Joined by America's allies, Clinton called for "real and immediate consequences for non-compliance, including sanctions," against the Assad regime.
But with neither Moscow nor Beijing in attendance, much remained dependent on persuading the two reluctant U.N. veto-wielding powers to force Assad into abiding by a cease-fire and the transition strategy. Clinton urged governments around the world to direct their pressure toward Russia and China as well.
"What can every nation and group represented here do?" Clinton asked. "I ask you to reach out to Russia and China, and to not only urge but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people."
"I don't think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all — nothing at all — for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime," she added. "The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price. Because they are holding up progress, blockading it. That is no longer tolerable."
It's unlikely the latest in a serious of U.S. pleas for Russian cooperation on Syria will help. The increasing exasperation with Moscow is partly a reflection of American powerlessness to stop the violence, with the Obama administration having effectively ruled out a military intervention or providing weapons to Syria's rebels.
That leaves the United Nations and the paths of increasing the economic pressure on Assad's regime and its political isolation. Russia and China have twice blocked U.N. condemnations of Syria's government and just last weekend worked to water down Annan's transition plan so that the Syrian leader and the opposition would have vetoes over interim government candidates.
The Kremlin rejected the anti-Assad call on Friday, with Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that Clinton's comments contradicted Annan's plan, which Washington and Moscow agreed to.
Despite limited space for action, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "We don't rule out any option for the future because it is deteriorating.
"It is a murdering regime, so we want to see a peaceful transition," he said, "but we are not ruling anything out."
Syrian rebels said sanctions weren't working and expressed a preference for quick military action. New violence in Syria led many activists to dismiss the importance of the Paris meeting. Anti-regime activists say Syrian forces have killed at least 25 people, arrested scores more and torched dozens of homes while seizing the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun from rebels.
At the conference, opposition member Hashimi called for a no-fly zone to prevent military forces from "flying over defected soldiers and civilians and bombarding them."
"We're sick of meetings and deadlines. We want action on the ground," said activist Osama Kayal, speaking via Skype from an area near Khan Sheikhoun.
In Paris, Burhan Ghalioun, former leader of the Syrian National Council, explained his frustration.
"I am not satisfied at all because the Syrians are not waiting for press communiques. What preoccupies the Syrians today is the way we can stop the massacre. Every day there are 100, 130, 150 victims and the people only think about that," he said. "They want action. They want measures and (a) practical mechanism to stop the killings."
Catherine Gaschka and Elaine Ganley in Paris, Robert H. Reid in Berlin and Ben Hubbard in Beirut contributed to this report.