BEIRUT — Syria’s deputy oil minister announced his defection in an online video that emerged Thursday, making him the highest ranking civilian official to abandon the regime since the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted a year ago.
Abdo Husameddine’s announcement came one day after the top U.S. general said President Barack Obama has asked for a preliminary review of military options in Syria, as the conflict grows increasingly dire. The U.N. estimates 7,500 people have been killed.
“I do not want to end my life servicing the crimes of this regime,” Husameddine said in a video posted on YouTube, adding that he was joining “the dignified people’s revolution.”
He appeared to address President Bashar Assad directly.
“You have inflicted on those you claim are your people a full year of sorrow and sadness, denied them the their basic rights to life and humanity and pushed the country to the edge of the abyss,” said Husameddine, wearing a suit and tie and appearing to be reading from a paper.
It was not clear when or where the video was made. There was no comment from Damascus.
Husameddine identified himself as an “assistant” to the oil minister and a member of the ruling Baath Party and said he has served 33 years in various government positions. Cabinet ministers in Syria may have several assistants known as deputies.
The defection came as international condemnation on Assad mounts.
On Wednesday, the U.N. humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, got the first independent outside look at the Baba Amr district of Homs following a deadly monthlong siege. The military took control of Baba Amr on March 1, but Amos was allowed in only Wednesday.
She said Thursday she was struck by the devastation she saw in the shattered neighborhood. She found it mostly empty after residents fled the fighting. Activists charge that Syrian forces conducted cleanup operations there, including executions and arrests.
“The devastation there is significant. 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 Damascus, a relatively peaceful stronghold of Assad’s regime.
“I have been struck by the difference between what I have seen here in Damascus and what I saw yesterday in Baba Amr,” she added.
But shortly after she spoke, Syrian security forces opened fire to disperse mourners in Mazzeh, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus. The crowd had gathered for the funeral of a soldier who was allegedly executed 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 as security forces attacked the crowd in Mazzeh. There was no word of casualties.
In Cairo, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan said his top priority as special envoy to Syria is to end the violence and deliver badly needed aid.
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. “I believe any further militarization would make the situation worse.”
Addressing a news conference after talks with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, he said he would be making “realistic” proposals to resolve the conflict. He did not elaborate.
Annan, who has been appointed joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, is scheduled to travel to Damascus on Saturday, where he will likely meet Assad.
Annan said his mission was to start a “political process” in Syria to resolve the conflict there, and his only priority was the welfare of the Syrian people. “They are a brave, ancient people and they deserve better,” he said.
Although there are widespread concerns that military action in Syria would be difficult, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that Obama has ordered up a Pentagon review of options.
Dempsey said the options to be examined included enforcing a no-fly zone and humanitarian airlifts. Dempsey said the military would study the situation and report back on points like Syria’s sophisticated air defenses and its extensive stockpile of chemical weapons. He said the assessment would include “mission, enemy, terrain, troops and time.”
The committee chairman, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, said the time is not right for a U.S. move against Syria.
Kerry told CBS’s “This Morning” Thursday that there are stark differences between Syria and Libya, where NATO airstrikes helped topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year. Kerry said Washington “can’t just jump up some morning and say, ‘Let’s go and drop some bombs on Syrian tanks.'”
The uprising began with largely peaceful protests, but faced with a vicious regime crackdown, it has become increasingly militarized. The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed in the yearlong violence. Activists put the death toll at more than 8,000.
Assad’s power structure has suffered a steady stream of army defectors, who have joined a group of dissidents known as the Free Syrian Army, now numbering in the thousands, but civilian government officials have remained largely loyal.
That added significance to the defection of Husameddine, the deputy oil minister.
Among numerous military defections recently was that of Syrian Brig. Gen. Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheik, who fled to Turkey in January, becoming the highest ranking officer to bolt.
In late August, Adnan Bakkour, the attorney general of the central city of Hama, appeared in a a video announcing he had defected from the regime. Authorities reported he had been kidnapped and said he was being kept against his will by gunmen. He has not been heard from since.
In the YouTube video, Husameddine said he was defecting “knowing full well that this regime will burn my home, persecute my family and make up a lot of lies.”
“I advise my colleagues … to abandon this sinking ship,” he added.