ISTANBUL/BEIRUT // The most prominent member of Syria’s ruling elite to flee the country was a personal friend of the Syrian president but fell out with the regime last year over its harsh response to the uprising, opposition activists said yesterday.
They said Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, the son of a Syrian defence minister, was close to the ruling family and received military training alongside Bashar Al Assad. The French foreign minister Laurent Fabius described the general as a long-time personal « friend » of the Syrian leader.
But opposition members said Gen Tlass, believed to be 48, was removed from his post as a brigade commander in the Republican Guard after he criticised the disproportionate use of force against protesters that has killed an estimated 16,000 people since March last year. One source said that a relative of the general is serving in the ranks of opposition forces and that the rebels may have helped to arrange his defection.
Gen Tlass was on his way to France yesterday, where his father lives, according to the French government. General Tlass’s brother, Firas, is reported to head a company which supplies the Syrian army with food, clothing and medicine. Heis also believed to be outside Syria. The Tlass family is Sunni, like the majority of Syrians, and not Alawite like most members of the Syrian elite, and comes from the western region of Homs.
Gen Tlass is married to a woman from the Damascus upper middle class, according to media reports. Reports also say he is an enthusiast of fancy cars, smokes cigars and is a regular at fashionable cafes in Damascus. His favourite holiday spot is the French Riviera. Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general, said the defection was « a message for pro-regime Sunnis that there’s a crack in the system » in Damascus ».
« We just have to wait and see how far it goes. »
A former Syrian officer who defected last year and joined the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) said he hoped Gen Tlass’s exit would spark a « new stage of defections » from the military. « Others will see there is no future for the regime, » he said in a Skype interview from Syria.
Fevzi Zakiroglu, a spokesman for the Syrian National Congress (SNC), an opposition umbrella group, said in an interview in Istanbul that Gen Tlass’s defection was « important, but it will not be decisive » because the general was removed from his post several months ago. « There were discussions, and Tlass was stripped of his responsibilities, » Mr Zakiroglu said.
The US-based Syria expert Joshua Landis wrote on his blog, Syria Comment, that it was believed Gen Tlass was supporting « negotiation, flexibility and compromise », as opposed to the wholesale use of military force to crush the revolt.
Omar Shawaf, another activist in Turkey, also said Gen Tlass opposed the crackdown against protesters. That position, expressed last year, put him at odds with Mr Al Assad, the commander in chief, and Maher Al Assad, the president’s brother and leader of key units of the Syrian military.
« He told them: ‘There’s no need to use strong violence like that, we should introduce some reforms,' » Mr Shawaf said, adding his information came from people inside Syria. « They took away his authority, and he was placed under house arrest. »
Khaldoon Alaswad, a Syrian opposition activist based in the US, said the defection was from « as close as it gets to the inner circle of the regime ».
« The family was the closest and most loyal to the Assad regime, » he said. « It is the innermost circle outside the blood relatives of the regime. »
Mr Shawaf said Gen Tlass is related to Abdulrazzak Muhammad Tlass, commander of the FSA’s Al Farouk Battalion, which has reportedly been fighting in Homs.
« I think the FSA was involved in getting him out of Syria » and into Turkey, from where he travelled on to France, Mr Shawaf said.
Nothing was known about Gen Tlass’s plans for the future. Mr Shawaf said the defected general was not expected to seek a role in the opposition movement. « It would be difficult for him, given his family background, » he said.