Former Syrian PM urges more defections

Syria's defected prime minister says President Bashar al-Assad's regime was near collapse and urged other political and military leaders to tip the scales and join the rebel side.

Assad regime is 'on the verge of collapse morally and economically'

Free Syrian Army fighters walk in Salaheddine neighborhood in central Aleppo on Monday. A Syrian regime envoy is in China today to hold talks. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Syria's defected prime minister said Tuesday that President Bashar al-Assad's regime was near collapse and urged other political and military leaders to tip the scales and join the rebel side.

"The regime is on the verge of collapse morally and economically," Riad Hijab told a news conference in his first public comments since leaving his post and fleeing to Jordan with his family last week. Hijab is the highest-ranking political figure to defect from Assad's regime.

He said he felt "pain in his soul" over the regime's shelling and other attacks on rebel strongholds as the government stepped up its military offensive. Activists say more than 20,000 people been killed in the struggle since March 2011.

"I was powerless to stop the injustice," he said, speaking in front of the rebel flag.

He called on "honourable leaders" in Syria to defect. 

"Syria is full of honorable officials and military leaders who are waiting for the chance to join the revolution," he said.

"I urge the army to follow the example of Egypt's and Tunisia's armies — take the side of people," he added.

Hijab said he was now backing the rebels, but gave no clue on his plans. There had been speculation that he would travel to the Gulf nation of Qatar, which is one of the rebels' main supporters.

China reaches out to Assad

China, meanwhile, sought to defuse criticism of its policy on Syria's violence, saying Tuesday while hosting a government envoy in Beijing that opposition figures may also visit the Chinese capital soon.

Assad's political and media adviser, Buthaina Shaaban, was due to meet Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi for talks, the foreign ministry said.

That reflects long-standing close ties between China and Syria that have prompted China to join with Russia in the UN Security Council to block action that could force Assad from power.

However, China also is considering inviting members of Syrian opposition groups to visit. Opposition representatives have visited before, but the worsening civil war would lend another visit added importance.

"China has always actively promoted its work between the Syrian government and the opposition in a balanced way to achieve a political solution to the Syria issue," spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement.

Sharply criticized by U.S.

Yang is expected to reiterate calls for both sides in Syria to implement special envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan to end the fighting that has killed an estimated 20,000 people over the last 18 months. Annan is resigning at the end of the month due to his failure to even achieve a temporary cease-fire in the civil war.

China and Russia have been sharply criticized by the United States and other Western countries for vetoing Security Council resolutions that might have opened the door to sanctions on Syria and ultimately force Assad from power.

China has a firm policy against supporting international humanitarian interventions and felt burned after abstaining on a vote supporting no-fly zones in Libya. China accused NATO of overstepping the resolution's mandate and vowed to block any similar measures in future.

China has strongly rejected criticism that it was hampering efforts to end the Syrian conflict.

Annan and U.S. officials have come to Beijing recently to seek China's backing on the UN's resolutions, or to at least abstain as it did in the Libyan case, but there have been no signs that China will change its stance.

Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group denied Tuesday that a man captured in the Syrian capital of Damascus and shown in a video released by the rebels was one of its members.

Downing of Syrian MiG

The video is the latest incident to reflect rising sectarian divisions in Syria's vicious civil war, which has seen an increase in abductions of Shia Muslims who many rebel fighters perceive as supporting President Bashar al-Assad. The regime is dominated by members of Assad's Alawite minority sect, an off-shoot of Shia Islam. Meanwhile, Sunnis, who are the majority in Syria, make up the backbone of the opposition.

The video purporting to show the captured Lebanese man followed another highly circulated rebel video Monday, showing what the rebels claimed was the downing of a Syrian MiG and armed men later holding the captured pilot who ejected. Syria acknowledged a pilot had bailed out of a disabled plane but blamed the crash on a technical malfunction.

In the video with the Lebanese captive, a man identifies himself as Hassane Salim al-Mikdad, and says he was one of 1,500 Hezbollah fighters sent to Syria on Aug. 3. The video was said to have been released by rebels and aired by Arab satellite TV Al-Arabiya on Tuesday.

"Most of those who entered were snipers," said the captive, whose face showed bruises as three masked gunmen stood behind him. A man, who could not be seen, was asking the hostage questions.

The captive then says that Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah gathered the men before they headed to Syria and told them that they should go to "support the Shiite regime and the Shiite army against Sunni gangs."

The authenticity of the video could not be independently confirmed.