White House officials can't confirm defection of Syrian vice president

The White House on Saturday could not validate reports that Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara defected from President Bashar Assad's cabinet, despite claims by rebel forces that he has abandoned Damascus for Jordan. 

On Friday, reports began to surface that Farouq had left the country days after his cousin, a top Syrian intelligence official, announced he was breaking ranks with the government on Thursday. 

"I'm not in a position to be able to confirm those reports," White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Saturday, while en route to a campaign event for President Barack Obama in New Hampshire. 

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If confirmed, Farouq would be the second top-tier government leader this month to cut off ties with Assad. 

Syrian Prime Minister Riyadh Hijab officially fled Assad's government two weeks ago. Three of Assad's top national security advisers, including Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha and Syrian assistant Vice President Hasan Turkmani, were killed in a rebel bombing in Damascus in July. 

Syrian government officials denied the reports, saying that Farouq "never thought for a moment about leaving the country" and remains loyal to Assad's regime, Reuters reported on Saturday. 

While Farouq's whereabouts are still unknown, his absence from Assad's inner circle is further proof that the president's stranglehold on power in Syria is rapidly eroding, according to Earnest. 

"We have seen in the last several weeks the increasing isolation of the Assad regime," he said en route to an Obama campaign event in New Hampshire. 

"Even those closest to President Assad recognize that he has lost his legitimacy to govern, and that is largely due to the heinous acts of violence that he is perpetrating on his own people," he said. 

If reports of Assad's No. 2 are true, it is "a clear indication that the momentum is on the side of the Syrian people" in the now 18-month long civil war between Assad's forces and anti-government troops fighting to depose the longtime president, according to Earnest. 

Speculation over Farouq's departure comes amid continued heavy fighting in the northern region of the country, near the major Syrian city of Aleppo. 

In recent weeks, Assad's forces have zeroed in on rebel positions in and around Aleppo with attack helicopters and fighter jets to devastating effect. 

Rebel leaders have pleaded with the United States to deploy fighters into northern Syria as part of a no-fly zone as a way to counter Assad's blistering air assaults.

However, a top American diplomat on Wednesday openly questioned whether Washington had the legal authority or the military wherewithal to enforce no-fly zones in northern Syria. 

But rebel commanders waiting for U.S. or international military intervention in Aleppo claim their forces are quickly running out of time. 

Anti-Assad forces are reportedly considering an alliance with the growing factions of al Qaeda fighters streaming into the country from Iraq. 

"We don't want al-Qaeda here, but if nobody else helps us, we will make an alliance with them," Abu Ammar, a rebel commander stationed in Aleppo, said Thursday. 

While that move could give anti-Assad forces the advantage they need to counter the government's continuing onslaught in Aleppo, it could derail any chance rebel forces have at securing U.S. military support.  

DOD and the White House have held off on efforts to supply Syrian fighters with weapons directly, amid concerns that if heavy weapons are funneled into Syria, it’s possible those arms could later be turned against American or allied troops by al Qaeda fighters.