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Former P.M.: Assad regime 'enemy of God'

ALEPPO, Syria, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad is collapsing and controls less than a third of the country, Syria's former prime minister said Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against Riyad Farid Hijab, the former prime minister. He had been subject to a freeze on any assets held in the United States and U.S. residents were banned from doing business with him.

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Hijab, who had been prime minister only two months before fleeing to Jordan last week with his family, spoke of the situation in Syria during a televised news conference in Amman, The New York Times reported.

Hijab said the Syrian government "no longer controls more than 30 percent of Syrian territory" and was experiencing a spiritual and economic collapse. He called Assad's government "an enemy of God" and praised King Abdullah II of Jordan and other regional leaders who have backed Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow Assad.

A U.S. official said the government hopes other Syrian officials will follow Hijab's example and "stand with the Syrian people."

"Recent civilian and military defections from the Assad regime are further indications that the government is crumbling and losing its grip on power," Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said.

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Hijab's news conference came as stepped-up fighting was reported in Syria's two main cities -- Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, Syria's largest city -- after rebels said they downed a Syrian fighter jet for the first time.

Meanwhile, Washington, London and Paris are changing course with Syria's opposition amid fears militant Islamist groups are gaining control, officials and analysts said.

The three powers have concluded efforts to help the exile-led Syrian National Council form a unified opposition to Assad have failed, officials told the British newspaper The Guardian.

The countries are now seeking to cultivate direct links with internal Syrian opposition groups, the officials said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's meetings in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday were intended to sidestep the council, based in Istanbul, The Guardian said.

The State Department had no immediate comment.

"This was a conclusion the State Department came to some time ago, and it is just now percolating through into policy," Joseph Holliday, a Syrian rebel expert at Washington's Institute for the Study of War think tank, told the newspaper.

Britain's announcement Friday of $7.8 million in non-military rebel aid was specifically earmarked for delivery to opposition groups inside Syria, British officials said. Doing so excluded the council.

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Council member Ausama Monajed, executive director of London's Strategic Research and Communication Center, told The Guardian the council "could have done a better job, a more effective job, in organizing the forms on the ground, and now the key issue is to bring fighting groups together in some other framework.

"But that does not mean that the council will be sidelined altogether. It is still the biggest political grouping and has a political and diplomatic role to play."

French President Francois Hollande, under pressure from former President Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene directly on the side of Syria's opposition, has thrown France's support to ex-Syrian Republican Guard Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a former member of Assad's inner circle who defected last month, University of Lyon Syria expert Fabrice Balanche told the newspaper.

France wants the Free Syrian Army to coalesce around Tlass to provide some coherence to the disparate array of militias, the newspaper said.

The U.S., British and French policy changes followed reports of escalated brutality by rebel forces and other evidence indicating a Salafi Muslim jihadist movement -- an extremist offshoot of the earliest Muslims -- was growing in strength, the officials and analysts told the newspaper.

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Salafi jihadists are associated by Western intelligence officials with al-Qaida and other militant groups.

Mainstream Salafis, part of Sunni Islam, say they reject jihadist terrorism as antithetical to Islam and to those who truly wish to follow the Prophet Mohammed, who founded the religion.

Salafi jihadism members fighting to overthrow Assad are funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, officials and analysts said.

Those governments had no immediate comment.

The Salafi jihadists "have the most ammunition and guns, and they get their money from a unified source," a Syrian financier linked to the opposition told The Guardian. "All the other money comes from multiple sources and multiple channels."

The unnamed financier said the local brigade commanders "swear allegiance to whoever supports them, and the [Syrian] expat community sending them money is completely divided."

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