BEIRUT: In what would be the most high-profile defection from the inner circle of the Syrian leadership, Manaf Tlass, a friend of President Bashar Assad and a brigadier in his Republican Guard, was reported Wednesday to have fled to Turkey. Tlass, whose father Mustapha was defense minister under Assad’s father for 30 years, could not be reached for comment, but several sources among the Syrian rebels told Reuters he had quit Damascus.
A news website close to Assad’s security services quoted a Syrian official as saying Tlass was now in Turkey.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry official would neither confirm nor deny the report, but told The Daily Star two generals had defected in the last three days. The source said that for the defectors’ and “their families’ security we won’t announce names unless they announce [it] themselves.”
Tlass is a rare representative of the Sunni Muslim majority in a political elite and officer corps dominated by Assad’s fellow Alawites, and his break with his friend may reflect an erosion of support for the president among wealthy Sunnis.
The Syriasteps website which referenced a “high-level security source” confirming his flight also quoted a security official playing it down: “His desertion means nothing,” he said. “If Syrian intelligence had wanted to arrest him it would have.”
But a source in the exiled opposition to Assad, who said a relative of Tlass had confirmed his defection to him, said: “It’s a very important defection. His brigade is very attached to their general, so we can say the true defection has started.”
That source said Tlass had fled Damascus Tuesday and was in Turkey en route for Paris, where Western and Middle Eastern sponsors of the rebel cause are meeting as the “Friends of Syria” Friday. The French capital is also the home of Tlass’s sister, widow of a billionaire Saudi arms dealer.
Another opposition source, who said he was familiar with the logistics of the operation to evacuate Tlass, told The Daily Star the operation had been planned for some time.
A witness in Damascus, who spoke anonymously for fear of the security services, said Tlass’s house in the Syrian capital was ransacked by security agents Thursday: “They took away everything,” the witness told Reuters.
Another opposition source said Tlass was expected to issue a video message soon announcing he was joining the opposition.
His departure alone is unlikely to greatly affect the capability of the Syrian army, but will be seized upon by Assad’s enemies in the West as well as at home.
A Western diplomat who knew Tlass in Damascus, where the general and his wife pursued a glamorous lifestyle with interests in the arts, told Reuters: “Manaf does not give the impression that he is a thug. But he mattered in the military.
“His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating,” the diplomat added.
Jeff White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, described the defection, if confirmed, as “significant.”
“He is/was, a commander of an important key regime protection unit, and closely associated with the regime,” White told The Daily Star via email.
“[It] could be a signal that the Sunni officers sticking with the regime so far are beginning to reconsider their options. [It] will be a concern to the regime of course, and could set off a witch-hunt with further damage to the cohesion of the army.”
Tlass commanded a brigade of the Republican Guard, an elite, praetorian force commanded by Assad’s brother Maher, one of the architects of a bloody crackdown on 16 months of dissent and rebellion in which it is estimated more than 15,000 people have been killed.
Friends have said that Tlass, who attended military college alongside the 46-year-old Syrian leader, had grown disillusioned with the crackdown, which hit particularly hard on his ancestral home town of Rastan where many of his fellow Sunni Muslims have joined the rebel Free Syrian Army.
His father and a brother, who is a prominent businessman, have already left Syria since the uprising.
The first opposition source said: “He took this decision because since last year he has been in conflict with President Bashar Assad over the Syrian regime’s decision to use a military solution against the Free Syrian Army.
“He’s is furious about that. Because of this, he has been almost a prisoner at his home in Damascus. Assad reinforced security to stop him leaving.”
Syrian troops pushed into the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun Thursday, activists said.
They said the security forces killed at least 11 people in an armored assault from the south at dawn after a fierce bombardment.
“They are burning houses and farms,” local activist Abu al-Ghaith al-Khani said, adding that 80 percent of residents had fled.
In a defiant interview with a Turkish newspaper, Assad blamed the revolt on Islamist militants from hostile Arab states and a Western plot to break up Syria.
“The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected,” he told Cumhuriyet daily. “The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this.”
“Everybody was calculating that I would fall in a small amount of time. They all miscalculated,” he said. “If I didn’t have the people behind me ... I would have been overthrown. How come I’m still standing?”
Russia, which condemns outside backing for Syrian insurgents whom it regards as dangerous Islamist militants, dismissed suggestions that it might grant Assad political asylum.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described such rumors as “an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia’s position.”
Moscow has backed a vaguely worded proposal for a political transition in Syria, but denies this implies removing Assad.
Along with China it has blocked U.N. Security Council action on Syria, anxious to give no pretext for a Libya-style military intervention – which the West denies contemplating.
A peace plan brokered in April by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan never took effect. The head of a 300-strong U.N. mission sent to monitor Annan’s cease-fire said the observers must stay in Syria even though there was no truce and violence was reaching an “unprecedented level.”
The mission should be restructured to help support political dialogue, said its leader, General Robert Mood.
Human rights monitor Rami Abdelrahman said 97 Syrians had been killed Wednesday, a daily death toll growing increasingly common.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said Al-Qaeda militants were crossing from Iraq into Syria to carry out “terrorist attacks” in support of anti-Assad rebels.
“Most of the suicide bombers, foreign fighters, elements of Al-Qaeda used to slip into Iraq from Syria. They know the routes and the connections,” Zebari said.
“This is our main concern – about the spillover, about extremist groups taking root in neighboring countries, to have a base.”