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Syrian General Defects, Heads To France As Assad's Opponents Meet There

Jul 6, 2012
Originally published on July 10, 2012 3:46 pm

A commander in Syria's Republican Guard whose family has been close to the family of Syrian President Bashar Assad has reportedly defected and is headed to France. That's where diplomats from more than 100 countries are meeting to discuss ways to put more pressure on Assad to end a brutal crackdown on his opponents that has left more than 10,000 civilians dead.

As NPR's Peter Kenyon tells our Newscast Desk, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told those gathered for the so-called Friends of Syria conference in Paris that Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass is on his way to France.

According to Peter, Tlass was considered a friend of Assad, "just as Tlass' father was a confident of the previous president, Hafez Assad (Bashar Assad's father)."

The New York Times reports that Fabius did not say whether Tlass would join the talks in Paris.

The Guardian, which is live blogging the news, notes that "British-based Syrian writer Rana Kabbani says the Tlass defection is being over-hyped." She has tweeted that:

"Clutching at straws re: defection of #ManafTlass‬. As a non-# Allawite, he would have had little access 2 useful information for ‪#FSA‬ ‪#Syria."

But Martin Indyk, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, tweets that:

"Syrian General Tlass defects. The rat has left the sinking ship. Mark it thus - the beginning of the end."

At the meeting in Paris, Reuters reports, the "Friends of Syria" have agreed to "massively increase" aid to the anti-Assad groups in Syria, including more communications equipment.

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More now on that defection of a Syrian general. Not just any general, but Brigadier General Manaf Tlass. He's the son of a former Syrian defense minister, Mustafa Tlass. It's a Sunni Muslim family and one that is close to the ruling Assad family.

How important is this? Well, we're going to ask Professor Joshua Landis, who's a Syria expert who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He's joining us from Norman.

Welcome back to the program.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: What does it say here that Brigadier General Manaf Tlass has defected?

LANDIS: It's very important. The Tlass family is a keystone of the Sunni Alawite alliance that's been the bedrock of this regime for 40 years. The fact that they have bailed out says that this regime is falling apart and the essential alliances are falling apart. Increasingly, this struggle is becoming one of sectarian communities, the Alawites against the Sunnis.

In the beginning, this was - it seemed like - angry young men from the countryside. The Sunnis were low class. They had rural districts. They had nothing to lose. For a long time, everybody has been saying, where's the Sunni elite? How come they're not defecting? Well, here is, you know, Mr. Sunni elite defecting.

SIEGEL: Now, there is a declaration of defection that's posted on your website. You say it's impossible to verify, but it looks reasonable. And, in it, Tlass says, I call for all my comrades in the armed forces, whatever their rank, who are dragged into this fight against their fellow Syrians and against their own ideas to stop supporting this regime. Would you expect others to follow him?

LANDIS: I do. I think that, you know, this sends a signal that Bashar al-Assad doesn't have the confidence of his top generals. The place is falling apart. Everybody's going to begin looking for the exit. The problem is that Manaf Tlass is a man of great wealth. His family has got power. He can take a golden parachute and land in Paris. He's fine. Most generals in the Syrian army don't have much money. They don't have bodyguards. They don't have a way out. They can't get their families out and Manaf is able to get his wife out. His brother and father got out before him. His sister is out. His son, we believe, was at AUB, the American University in Beirut. He has been able to really manage this exit very gracefully.

SIEGEL: Manaf Tlass also wrote in that declaration of defection, I was - I'm quoting from the translation - "progressively dismissed from my place of duty in the armed forces." That suggests that his misgivings about what the regime was doing were known to his superiors and it implies that there is at least some kind of debate that's been going on among senior officers, doesn't it?

LANDIS: It does. And friends who've recently been with him in Damascus, had dinner with him, say he that he was very bitter. He had been given the task of trying to bring Harasta and Duma, two neighborhoods of Damascus in the suburbs that had led this revolutionary process to heal. And he had gone out to the opposition. He talked with them. He got them to back off, but he also negotiated this and agreed that the regime would back off.

The regime center said, we're not going to do it this way. They came down like a ton of bricks, breaking heads and we've seen the violence that's ensued. And, in a sense, the people like Tlass, who were looking for a softer landing for the regime, got pushed aside. And he was sidelined. That's the word and that's certainly the word he's putting out and bitter about it.

SIEGEL: Professor Landis, would Manaf Tlass strike Syrian opposition forces as either a possible leader of their cause or a transitional leader or is he too deeply associated with the old regime to be a credible leader of a new one?

LANDIS: You know, the opposition, I'm sure, are all celebrating. This is an important crack in the regime, but there is going to be tons of bitterness against him. This family has been an architect of this regime. They're not going to embrace him.

There are others. Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, who defected in 2005 and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. That fell apart. And there's Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of the present president of Syria, who is also in Paris, but none of them have been embraced by the opposition. In fact, they've been forbidden to come to opposition meetings, so I think the Tlass family, although people will be very happy to see the regime crumbling, they're going to have a very hard time ingratiating themselves with the opposition.

SIEGEL: Professor Landis, thanks for talking with us once again.

LANDIS: Well, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Joshua Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.