BEIRUT - Syria's ambassador to Iraq defected on Wednesday in protest against President Bashar al-Assad's violent suppression of a 16-month uprising, while the United Nations Security Council remained deadlocked over the next steps in the crisis.

"I declare that I have joined, from this moment, the ranks of the revolution of the Syrian people," Nawah al-Fares said in a video statement posted on Facebook. He did not elaborate or say from where he had posted the statement.

"I ask . the members of the military to join the revolution and to defend the country and the citizens. Turn your guns toward the criminals from this regime," Mr al-Fares said.

"Every Syrian man has to join the revolution to remove this nightmare and this gang that has wreaked corruption across Syria and destroyed the state and society over the past 40 years, and to guarantee a bright future for the coming generations."

Mr al-Fares, who has close ties to Syrian security, was the first senior diplomat to quit the embattled government. He did not spell out his reasons for defecting, but repeatedly said government forces had been killing civilians.

There has been no comment from Damascus or Baghdad and the White House said it was unable to confirm the defection, hailed by Mr al-Assad's opponents as a sign of crumbling support.

Russia, Mr al-Assad's chief backer on the UN Security Council, remained firmly in the Syrian leader's camp.

The 15-member council made little headway after international mediator Kofi Annan asked it to agree on "clear consequences" if the government or opposition failed to comply with his faltering plan for a political solution to the crisis.

Mr al-Fares, a Sunni Muslim who had held senior positions under late president Hafez al-Assad, is from Deir al-Zor, the eastern city on the road to Iraq which has been the scene of a ferocious military onslaught by Mr al-Assad's forces.

"This is just the beginning of a series of defections on the diplomatic level. We are in touch with several ambassadors," said Mohamed Sermini, a member of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council.

The defection of Mr al-Fares could be a major blow to Mr al-Assad, who wants to convince a sceptical world he is conducting a legitimate defence of his country against foreign-backed armed groups bent on toppling the government.

Mr al-Fares's decision to jump ship follows the high-profile flight from Syria last week of Brig-Gen Manaf Tlas, also a Sunni and once a close friend of Mr al-Assad, whose minority Alawite sect has relied on Sunni allies to maintain control of Syria's majority Sunni population.

Brig-Gen Tlas fled to Paris and has not spoken since of his intentions. Opposition sources said earlier that Mr al-Fares was leaving Iraq but it was not clear where he would go.

DIVIDED ON SANCTIONS

Mr Annan, appointed as mediator by the UN and the Arab League, briefed the UN Security Council by video link from Geneva on the results of this week's diplomatic shuttle to Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad - three capitals forming a Shiite Muslim axis of power in the Middle East.

The deeply divided council must decide the future of a UN observer mission in Syria before July 20, when its 90-day mandate expires. It initially approved 300 unarmed military observers to monitor an April 12 cease-fire, which failed to take hold, as part of Mr Annan's peace plan.

Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, have for months blocked moves by western and Arab countries aimed at increasing the pressure on Mr al-Assad, leaving the council deadlocked.

Britain on Wednesday circulated a draft resolution to extend the monitors' mandate for 45 days and make compliance with Mr Annan's transition plans for the country enforceable under chapter seven of the UN Charter, which allows the council to authorise actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.

The draft resolution in particular threatens the Syrian government with sanctions if it does not stop using heavy weapons and withdraw its troops from towns and cities within 10 days of the adoption of the resolution.

Mr Annan said on Wednesday both Iran and Iraq supported a plan for a Syrian-led political transition in Damascus - buttressing his argument that Tehran should be involved in efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis despite the west's firm rejection of any Iranian role. But while Russia and China have also called for Iran to be included in the process, US officials said there was still no sign that Tehran was ready to act constructively.

Reuters