* Momentum is with opposition and Syrian people, U.S. says
* Long battle expected between pro-Assad, opposition forces
* But U.S. officials say defections are making a dent
WASHINGTON, Aug 6 (Reuters) - The White House said on Monday
the defection of Syria's prime minister showed that President
Bashar al-Assad's government was "crumbling from within" and
repeated the U.S. call for him to step aside and end the
violence gripping the country.
"This is a sign that Assad's grip on power is loosening. If
he cannot maintain cohesion within his own inner circle, it
reflects on his inability to maintain any following among the
Syrian people that isn't brought about at the point of a gun,"
White House spokesman Jay Carney told a news briefing.
"The momentum is with the opposition and with the Syrian
people. It's clear that these defections are reaching the
highest levels of the Syrian government and Assad cannot restore
his control over the country because the Syrian people will not
allow it," he said.
The latest defection "only reinforces that the Assad regime
is crumbling from within and that the Syrian people believe that
Assad's days are numbered," Carney said.
In one of the highest-profile desertions from Damascus,
Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab on Monday fled the country.
While not part of Assad's inner circle, his departure provides a
powerful morale boost to the opposition.
Like the rebels, Hijab is from Syria's Sunni Muslim
majority, while Assad is from the Alawite minority.
The United States has sought to increase pressure on Assad
to leave power for more than a year.
U.S. intelligence officials expect pro-Assad and opposition
forces to be in the fight for the long haul and are not
predicting a near-term end to the Syrian conflict.
But U.S. officials say the defections are making a dent.
"It stands to reason that mounting defections are taking a
psychological toll on the regime," a U.S. official said on
condition of anonymity. "There's probably a range of motivations
for why people are breaking with Assad, from self-preservation
to an inability to tolerate his ruthless tactics."
"The impact of defections on regime stability will depend in
part on the role these people play in the opposition," the
official said. "And with the heat on the regime rising, Assad
may be starting to wonder about the loyalty of some in his inner
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced last week
he would resign his post as U.N.-Arab League Joint Special Envoy
for Syria after Assad failed to respect the terms of a
U.N.-backed peace deal and after China and Russia refused to
support increased sanctions on Syria.
At the White House, Carney said the Obama administration
would continue working with other countries and with Syria's
opposition to keep pressure on Assad and encourage a peaceful
political transition there.
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