The Syrian PM under the portrait of President Assad.
In this undated photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, center, speaks under the portrait of Assad. Photo by AP
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The White House said on Monday the defection of Syria's prime minister showed that President Bashar Assad's government was "crumbling from within" and it repeated its 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 United States has been seeking to increase pressure on Assad to leave power for more than a year.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced last week he would resign his post as UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy for Syria after Assad failed to respect the terms of a UN-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 onAssad and encourage a peaceful political transition there.

Meanwhile, Russia's embassy in Syria denied rumors that the ambassador had issued any statement on President Bashar Assad's health on Monday, dismissing the veracity a message on Twitter that had quoted the envoy as suggesting Assad might have been killed.

"Our ambassador said nothing of the sort," embassy press attache Artyom Savelyev said by telephone from Damascus.