A senior Syrian official has defected to the opposition movement in protest of the government’s ten-month crackdown on peaceful protests that has claimed thousands of lives across the country.
Mahmoud Souleiman Hajj Hamad, the head inspector of the country’s defence ministry, held a press conference on Wednesday in Cairo to announce his defection.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Hamad, who was also an auditor for the interior ministry, denied government claims that the ongoing violence was caused by “terrorists” aided from abroad.
“We were analysing and seeing for ourselves that the regime's story about armed gangs going out and killing protesters was all lies," he said. "I confirm there are no armed gangs, they are all unarmed protesters.”
Hamad said the government has spent about $40mn on loyalist militias to crush demonstrations since March, as security forces, at times backed by tanks, laid siege to protests hubs across the nation.
“While auditing, I found two billion Syrian pounds [$40m] paid out to the regime's paid thugs, and seen an increase in the spending of the intelligence and defence ministries for the purpose of paying thugs.
“We saw them preparing and heading out in their armoured vehicles and buses toward the young protesters and killing them. It has been happening since the beginning of the protests.”
Iran and Iraq
Hamad also said most government officials and employees want to defect but are afraid of the consequences.
"Syrian government officials live in a kind of prison...No one can go anywhere without being accompanied by a member of the security services," he added.
Hamad continued that he has seen proof that Iran and Iraq are aiding the Syrian government's crackdown.
"The Syrian regime receives financial support from Iraq and Iran," said Hamad, without providing details.
Hamad also praised the Free Syrian Army, a group of up to 25,000 members of the country's security forces who have defected to protect civilians from the government's crackdown.
In a separate development, Riyadh Al-Asaad, the head of the Free Syrian Army, called on the Arab League on Thursday to withdraw its 100-strong observer mission from the country over its perceived "failure" to halt the violence, echoing demands from opposition groups.
Even so, Nabil Elaraby, Arab League secretary-general, has said that the mission will not be cut short.
Asaad issued the call after the Arab League turned to the United Nations for help and admitted "mistakes" in the monitoring mission launched less than two weeks ago.
"We hope they will announce that their mission was a failure and that they will be withdrawn," Asaad, who is based in Turkey, said in the telephone interview with the AFP news agency.
"We call on the Arab League to step aside and let the United Nations take over responsibility as it is more apt to find solutions," he added.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, Qatar's prime minister who heads an Arab League task force on Syria, reportedly discussed the observer mission with UN leader Ban Ki-moon in New York on Wednesday.
"We are coming here for technical help and to see the experience the UN has, because this is the first time the Arab League is involved in sending monitors, and there are some mistakes," said Sheikh Hamad, quoted by Kuwait's KUNA news agency.
A UN spokesman said only that Ban and the al-Thani "discussed practical measures by which the United Nations could support the observer mission of the Arab League in Syria."
Opposition groups have accused the Syrian government of misleading Arab League observers by taking them to areas loyal to the government, changing street signs to confuse them, and sending supporters into hostile neighbourhoods to give false testimony.
Activists also said government loyalists were painting military vehicles blue to make them look like police vehicles.
They called this a ploy that allows the government to claim it has pulled the army out of heavily populated areas in accordance with the Arab League plan that was supposed to end the government's crackdown on dissent.
The plan requires the government to remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and free political prisoners.
But the Arab League has acknowledged that killings have gone on, even with the observers on the ground. Activists put the death toll at more than 390 people since the mission began on December 26.
As the observers continued their work on Thursday, security forces and pro-government groups shot dead at least 22 people, most of them in province of Deir Ezzor, activist groups said.