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AMMAN - President Bashar al-Assad controls less than a third of Syria and his power is crumbling, his former prime minister said on Tuesday, in his first public appearance since he defected to the opposition this month.
Riyad Hijab told a news conference in Jordan that the morale of Syrian authorities was low after grappling for 17 months to crush a popular uprising and an armed insurgency against Assad.
"The regime is collapsing, spiritually and financially, as it escalates militarily," he said. "It no longer controls more than 30 percent of Syrian territory."
Hijab, a Sunni Muslim, was not in Assad's inner circle. But as the most senior civilian official to defect, his flight after two months in the job looked embarrassing for the president.
Hijab did not explain his estimate of the territory still controlled by Assad, whose military outnumbers and outguns the rebels fighting to overthrow him. The army is battling to regain control of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, after retaking parts of Damascus that were seized by insurgents last month.
Curbs on media access make it hard to know how much of Syria is in rebel hands, but most towns and cities along the country's backbone, a highway running from Aleppo in the north to Deraa in the south, have been swept up in the violence. Assad has also lost swathes of land on Syria's northern and eastern border.
While the military focuses on Damascus and the business hub of Aleppo, rebels have slowly made gains in Syria's tribal heartland to the east, where a ferocious fight is under way for Deir al-Zor, capital of the country's main oil-producing region.
Army gunners shell Deir al-Zor, an impoverished Sunni city near the Iraqi border, from fortified outposts in the desert.
A Western diplomat who follows the Syrian military said rebel forces in Deir al-Zor were fragmented but that the military lacked the numbers and supply lines to defeat them, in a region producing all Syria's 200,000 barrel a day oil output.
Jubilant rebels said they had shot down a Syrian jet fighter southeast of Deir al-Zor and captured its pilot on Monday. The government blamed the crash on technical problems.
ISLAMIC COLD SHOULDER
Assad also faced deeper diplomatic isolation over his violent crackdown on opposition with the planned suspension of Syria from the Saudi-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a step opposed by his Shi'ite ally Iran.
He will view the OIC decision, to be adopted at a summit of the 57-member body in Mecca, as the work of supporters of the Syrian opposition such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
Splits among big powers and regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia have stymied diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed in Syria, where opposition sources say 18,000 people have been killed. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 45 died on Tuesday and 180 the day before.
The violence, now focused on the city of Aleppo but flaring in many other areas, has displaced 1.5 million people inside Syria and forced many to flee abroad, with 150,000 registered refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, U.N. figures show.
U.N. emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos arrived in Syria to discuss aid for civilians trapped or uprooted by the fighting, which has frequently prevented the delivery of food and medical supplies.
"She's there to express her grave, grave concern over the situation," spokesman Jens Laerke said. "She will look at the situation on the ground and discuss with the government and humanitarian partners how to scale up the response in Syria."
Efforts to arrange ceasefires to let relief convoys through have rarely worked. A U.N. official said last month the Syrian authorities had often denied visas to Western aid workers.
In Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and its economic dynamo, food is running short and has become far more expensive. State-run groceries that sold heavily subsidised staples have shut. In the Bustan al-Qasr district, hundreds of men lined up for bread.