BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's deputy oil minister appeared tense as he looked at the camera and announced in a video that he has defected from President Bashar Assad's regime, acknowledging he expects government forces to "burn my home" and "persecute my family."
Abdo Husameddine, a 58-year-old father of four, on Thursday became the highest-ranking civilian official to join the opposition, and he urged his countrymen to "abandon this sinking ship" as the nation spirals toward civil war.
In the YouTube video, Husameddine seemed to address Assad directly, accusing him of vast crimes in the past year as government forces pummel the opposition with tanks and snipers. The U.N. estimates 7,500 people have been killed since the uprising began.
"You have inflicted on those you claim are your people a full year of sorrow and sadness, denied them their basic rights to life and humanity and pushed the country to the edge of the abyss," said Husameddine, wearing a dark suit and tie. He appeared to be reading from a script, casting his eyes down to find the words.
"I do not want to end my life servicing the crimes of this regime," he said. "I declare that I am joining the revolution of the dignified people."
The authenticity of the video could not be verified, and he did not disclose his location. Damascus did not comment on the video. According to a resume posted on the website of Syrian Oil and Gas News, Husameddine is married with four children, fluent in English and French, and studied petroleum engineering at al-Baath University. He was appointed by Assad in 2009.
Assad's regime has suffered a steady stream of low-level army defectors, who have joined a group of dissidents known as the Free Syrian Army, now numbering in the thousands.
Brig. Gen. Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheik, who fled to Turkey in January, was the highest ranking officer to bolt. In late August, Adnan Bakkour, the attorney general of the central city of Hama, appeared in a video announcing he had defected.
Authorities reported he had been kidnapped and said he was being kept against his will by gunmen. He has not been heard from since.
Civilian officials, like Husameddine, have remained largely loyal — making his announcement noteworthy.
Open dissent is dangerous in Syria, a country that crushed any rumblings of defiance even before the popular revolt started to threaten the Assad family's 40-year dynasty. The security forces, which are the backbone of the regime and drive the culture of fear and paranoia, will protect the leadership at all costs.
The cohesion is built into the very structure of the government. Assad, and his father who ruled before him, filled key military posts in the overwhelmingly Sunni country with members of their minority Alawite sect, ensuring loyalty by melding the fate of the army and the regime.
As a result, the army leadership will likely fight to the death, out of fear of being persecuted if the Sunni majority gains the upper hand. But it is not only Alawites whose livelihoods are tied up with the regime; many government officials and prosperous Syrian businessman and officials have long traded political freedoms for economic and other advantages.
In many ways, Husameddine's defection was a reminder of just how airtight the regime has remained, particularly compared to the swift hemorrhaging of Moammar Gadhafi's inner circle.
Within weeks of the Libyan revolt last year, a number of Libyan ambassadors and other high-ranking officials quit the government, and many joined the opposition leadership. The early defection of huge sections of the army in eastern Libya gave the rebel movement a safe zone where they could freely organize their political and military strategies.
Syria has seen nothing similar, with armed groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army but lacking coordination beyond their city or even their neighborhood.
Husameddine appealed to other officials to follow his lead.
"I advise my colleagues who have been silent in the face of crimes for a year to abandon this sinking ship, which is about to drown," he said. "The blood of martyrs will not forgive those who continue to conspire with them under the justification that they are employees or carrying out orders."
He also spoke to the Alawites, saying they have no reason to support the regime.
"I advise the Alawite community and say to them, 'the Syrian people is your safety net, and the regime will doubtlessly go, so don't be partners in killing your people,'" he said.
Husameddine identified himself as an engineer and assistant to the oil minister. He said he was member of the ruling Baath Party, but was now quitting, adding he had served 33 years in various government posts. Cabinet ministers in Syria may have several assistants known as deputies.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington couldn't authenticate the video. But if Husameddine has defected, she said, it would be in keeping with the Obama administration's call "for senior members of the regime to break with Assad, refuse to stand with this brutal dictator, and instead stand up for the dignity of their people."
"So it would be very good news indeed," Nuland told reporters.
Asked about the limited numbers of defections so far, she said "they start with a trickle, and then they tend to turn into a torrent."
"We are seeing an uptick over the last couple of months of military defections. They seem to be in the rank and file primarily," Nuland said. "But once these things get going, they tend to increase. So let us hope that we are at the beginning of a trend."
Husameddine's defection came at the height of international pressure against Assad's regime, with the U.S. considering options for military intervention.
Although there are widespread concerns that military action could cause a regional upheaval, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that Obama has ordered up a Pentagon review of options.
Dempsey said the options to be examined include enforcing a no-fly zone and humanitarian airlifts. He added that the military would study the situation and report back on points like Syria's sophisticated air defenses and its extensive stockpile of chemical weapons.
The presidents of Turkey and Tunisia, meeting in Tunis, said they are opposed to outside military intervention in Syria. Turkish President Abdullah Gul said regional powers should try to resolve the crisis.
Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, the new special envoy to Syria, was expected in Damascus on Friday to try to end the violence. He warned against further militarization of the conflict and urged the opposition to come together with the government to find a political solution.
"I hope that no one is thinking very seriously of using force in this situation," Annan said in Cairo. "I believe any further militarization would make the situation worse."
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who on Wednesday got the first independent outside look at the Baba Amr district of Homs following a deadly monthlong siege, said she was struck by the devastation she saw.
"That part of Homs is completely destroyed, and I am concerned to learn what happened to the people in that part of the city," she said in the capital of Damascus, a relatively peaceful stronghold of Assad's regime.
Activists allege that Syrian forces conducted cleanup operations in Baba Amr, including execution-style killings and arrests.
Shortly after she spoke, Syrian security forces opened fire to disperse mourners in Mazzeh, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, at a funeral of a soldier who was allegedly killed last month for refusing to obey orders to shoot at civilians in Homs.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said scores of people were arrested in Mazzeh. There was no word of casualties.
After seizing Baba Amr, regime forces now appear to be turning their attention to other rebellious areas. Activists are reporting assaults on the northern province of Idlib near Turkey amid fears that could be the next target.
Some Syrians brushed off diplomacy as a waste of time, saying the world should arm those fighting the regime.
"Diplomacy cannot work. We need weapons to get rid of this regime," said Sami al-Din, 27, who was wounded in the southern province of Daraa when regime forces fired on a demonstration. He spoke to The Associated Press in Amman, Jordan, where he and other Syrians were receiving medical care.
"Now power must be met with power," said businessman Fayez Qudeh, 30. "People are being killed day after day and there will be no solution to the Syria crisis without military force."
AP writers Zeina Karam and Ben Hubbard in Beirut, Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.