UPDATE 2-White House says Assad losing his grip on power

Reuters Middle East

* 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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