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Assad regime near collapse, Syria PM says after defecting

One of the most senior figures to defect from President Assad government today called the regime "an enemy of God". Former Prime Minister Riad Hijab said the government is losing its grip on the country and is collapsing. ITV's John Ray reports.

AMMAN, Jordan -- President Bashar Assad controls less than a third of Syria and his power is crumbling, his former prime minister said Tuesday, in his first public appearance since he defected to the opposition this month.

"The regime is collapsing, spiritually and financially, as it escalates militarily," Riad Hijab told a news conference in Jordan. Hijab, the highest-ranking political figure to defect from Assad's regime, also said that the government controls only 30 percent of the country.


He also told a news conference in Jordan that the government's spirits were low after struggling for 17 months to crush the revolt against Assad's rule.

Hijab, a Sunni Muslim, was not in Assad's inner circle. But his flight after two months on the job looked embarrassing for the president.

Hijab did not explain his estimate of the territory still controlled by Assad, whose military outnumbers and outguns the rebels fighting to overthrow him. The army is battling to regain control of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, after retaking parts of Damascus that were seized by insurgents last month.

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Former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected from the government of President Bashar Assad last week, holds a press conference in the Jordanian capital Amman on Tuesday.

Curbs on media access make it difficult to know how much of Syria is in rebel hands, but most towns and cities along the country's backbone, a highway running from Aleppo in the north to Daraa in the south, have been swept up in the violence. Assad has also lost swathes of land on Syria's northern and eastern border.

Struggle to retain power
Assad is struggling to keep power, relying on military and security forces led by members of his minority Alawite sect, an esoteric offshoot of Shiite Islam. They are combating a deadly insurgency that emerged after a crackdown on peaceful anti-Assad protesters mostly from Syria's 70 percent Sunni majority.

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While the military focuses on Damascus and the business hub of Aleppo, rebels have slowly made gains in Syria's tribal heartland to the east, where a ferocious fight is under way for Deir al-Zor, capital of the country's main oil-producing region.

Army gunners shell Deir al-Zor, an impoverished Sunni city near the Iraqi border, from fortified outposts in the desert.

Jubilant rebels said they had shot down a Syrian fighter jet southeast of Deir al-Zor and captured its pilot on Monday. The government blamed the crash on technical problems.

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People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

Assad also faced deeper diplomatic isolation over his violent crackdown on opposition with the planned suspension of Syria from the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a step opposed by his Shiite ally Iran.

He will likely view the decision, to be adopted at a summit of the 57-member body in Mecca, as the work of supporters of the Syrian opposition such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

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Splits among big powers and regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia have stymied diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed in Syria, where opposition sources tell Reuters that 18,000 people have been killed. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 45 died Tuesday and 180 the day before.

Opposition forces claim to have shot down a Syrian plane and captured the pilot, but the Assad regime has denied the shooting. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely to take up the cudgels on Assad's behalf at the two-day Mecca summit that may highlight the rift between the Shiite Islamic Republic and Sunni-ruled nations that want the Syrian leader to step down.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be paying for arms that reach Syrian rebels via Turkey to try to counter the superior firepower of Assad's mostly Russian-armed military.

Most of the people living in the towns near Syria's largest city have fled, and those without money to leave were killed, rebels say. The Syrian troops have created a no-man's land, reportedly so that rebels can't re-supply the fighters inside. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Russia and China, which have blocked any U.N. Security Council action on Syria, firmly oppose any outside intervention in Syria, but Beijing is trying to show a "balanced" approach by developing contacts with the opposition as well as Damascus.

Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Assad, arrived in Beijing but did not speak to reporters. She will meet Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, the foreign ministry said.

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"China is also considering inviting Syrian opposition groups in the near term to China," ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

The violence, now focused on the city of Aleppo but flaring in many other areas, has displaced 1.5 million people inside Syria and forced many to flee abroad, with 150,000 registered refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, U.N. figures show.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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