Beirut (Reuters) - Syria's ambassador to Iraq has defected in protest at President Bashar al-Assad's military crackdown on a 16-month popular uprising, Syrian opposition sources said on Wednesday.
Nawaf al-Fares, who was closely linked to the security establishment, would be the first senior Syrian diplomat to defect. He is from Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria, the scene of a ferocious military onslaught by 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 of the main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC).
The defection of Fares, a Sunni Muslim in a power structure dominated by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, related to Shi'ite Islam, dealt a serious blow to the authoritarian leader who has been in power since 2000.
Fares' move followed the high profile flight abroad of General Manaf Tlas, who had been a close friend of Assad and a leading light among Sunni supporters of the president.
The uprising is being waged by rebels largely from Syria's Sunni majority.
(Reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Mark Heinrich)