Former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab, who defected this month, has arrived in Qatar to discuss how to unify opposition efforts to hasten Assad’s downfall, his spokesman said.
Hijab, a Sunni Muslim, is the most senior serving civilian official to desert Assad, whose ruling system is dominated by members of his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Shi’ite Iran, Assad’s closest ally, has cast the revolt in Syria as a plot by the US and its regional allies to destroy an anti-Israel “axis of resistance” linking Tehran, Damascus and Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah movement.
“You want a new Middle East? We do too, but in the new Middle East... there will be no trace of the American presence and the Zionists,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech to mark annual state-organised rallies against Israel.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which like Syria have mainly Sunni populations, are the principal regional supporters of the rebels fighting Assad in an increasingly bloody conflict.
More than 250 people, including 123 civilians, were killed in Syria on Thursday alone, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Turkey is taking the brunt of a swelling exodus of refugees, with 66,000 Syrians now sheltering there, the Turkish state disaster and emergency authority said.
Some 1,500 arrived from the rebel-held border town of Azaz after Assad’s air force bombed it on Wednesday, killing at least 35 people, Turkey’s Dogan news agency reported.
It said another 1,500 from the devastated town were thought to be on their way.
Fighting has been raging in the northern city of Aleppo as rebels battle for control. Assad’s forces have turned increasingly to air power to hold back lightly- armed insurgents trying to seize territory elsewhere.
Turkey’s state-run Anatolian news agency said 13 of 86 casualties brought from Aleppo and Azaz to a state hospital in the Turkish border province of Kilis had died from their wounds.
The UN refugee agency said more than 170,000 Syrian refugees have been registered in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
“There has been a further sharp rise in the number of Syrians fleeing to Turkey,” spokesman Adrian Edwards of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said. Some 40% of those in Turkey had arrived this month, he added.
Humanitarian conditions in Syria have deteriorated as fighting worsens, cutting off civilians from food supplies, health care and other assistance, UN agencies said. Sewage-contaminated water has led to a diarrhoea outbreak in the countryside around Damascus, with 103 suspected cases.
Some 1.2m people are uprooted within Syria, many staying in schools or other public buildings, UN officials said.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, ending a visit to Syria, said on Thursday up to 2.5m people needed aid in the country.
Diplomats from the world’s major powers, along with key Arab governments and Turkey, were due to meet at the UN in New York yesterday to discuss what to do after the failure of peace efforts led by Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
UN sources said veteran Algerian mediator Lakhdar Brahimi had agreed to take over from Annan, who resigned two weeks ago in frustration, but that he would pursue a new approach.
The last UN monitors are due to leave Damascus by Aug 24, UN officials said, after a doomed mission to observe a ceasefire declared by Annan on Apr 12.
The UN Security Council remains deadlocked over Syria, with Russia and China resisting Western efforts to step up pressure on Assad to quit and unwilling to give even an amber light for military intervention — not that the US and its allies have shown any appetite for overt action in Syria.