The first defection of a member of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle highlights the growing isolation of the Alawite-dominated regime as the United Nations considers next steps to usher in a transitional government.
Syrian Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas, a Sunni Muslim, was a confidant of Assad, who is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. His defection was announced in Paris by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at a Friends of Syria meeting yesterday.
The decision to abandon Assad “underscores the very real worry that this war is turning into a civil war drawn along religious, communal lines,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, in response to e-mailed questions.
“If that happens, the regime will fall apart,” Landis said. “The Alawites cannot rule Syria alone.”
An uprising that began peacefully 16 months ago and evolved into a deadly confrontation has caused the international community to reconsider its strategy over how to persuade Assad, whose family has held power for four decades, to leave. Syrian forces battled with rebels in Aleppo in the north of the country as they sought to reassert control over the region, the U.K.- based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement today. They also were conducting raids in Deraa province, the group said.
More than 70 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni and Assad and his ruling minority depend on the loyalty of Sunni Muslim officers.
Tlas, formerly a commander in the elite Republican Guard, is the son of ex-Defense Minister Mustapha Tlas and was a childhood friend of Assad. Before leaving the country, he headed Brigade 105 in the Revolutionary Guard, according to the pro-government website Syria Steps.
Tlas urged other soldiers, regardless of their rank, to “quit this bad track,” according to a letter to his troops with his signature, reported by Agence France-Presse, which couldn’t verify the letter’s authenticity.
The rising violence in Syria, even with the presence of 300 UN military observers, will play a role in what the UN Security Council -- where Russia has used its veto to shield Assad --will do next.
In a 25-page report, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recommends a reduction in the number of monitors in Syria, and having the smaller mission based in Damascus, to encourage a political dialogue. The UN monitors’ three-month mission expires July 20.
The drawback to this option is that “popular opinion may misinterpret intensified advocacy at the central level as privileging government prerogatives, while reducing access to opposition groups outside the capital,” Ban’s report said.
The Security Council will vote next week on a resolution based on Ban’s recommendations.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the Paris meeting that Russia and China, two veto-wielding members of the Security Council, are blocking movement toward a settlement in Syria and urged that they be pressured to end their support of Assad’s government.
“I ask you to reach out to Russia and China and not only ask, but demand they get off the sidelines,” Clinton said to more than 100 delegates at the conference. “I don’t think Russia and China think they are paying any price at all -- nothing at all -- for standing with the Assad regime.”
Clinton’s remarks were “totally unacceptable,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement on the ministry’s website today. China has wide international support for its “just and constructive” stance to resolve the Syrian conflict, he said.
Russia didn’t attend this Friends of Syria meeting. Russian representatives were sent to a Syrian opposition meeting in Cairo on July 2 and 3.
While Ban’s report says the UN can’t verify the number of casualties, the world body cites non-governmental organizations as reporting the number of dead since the outset of the insurrection to be between 13,000 and 17,000. At least 73 people were killed yesterday, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e-mail.
Authorities have portrayed the unrest as a conspiracy and the protesters as radical Islamists. At the Paris gathering, opposition figures advocated a no-fly zone and criticized the group for moving too slowly to help Syrian civilians.
At least two people have been killed and 10 others injured after shells were fired into north Lebanon from across the Syrian border, the Associated Press said, citing Lebanese security officials. One woman died and five other people were hurt when a shell hit a home in the Wadi Khalid area of northeast Lebanon, the news agency said.
“We fail to understand how it is we have so many friends and yet so many people are dying every day,” said Riad Seif, a founder of the “Damascus Declaration,” a call by intellectuals for a peaceful democratic transition.
Nabil el-Arabi, the secretary-general of the Arab League, said “a declaration of intent is not enough” and that “we must force the UN to act.”
Assad, in an interview with the Turkish Cumhuriyet newspaper, said sanctions “no matter how intensified” won’t make his government change its position, the state-run Sana news agency reported yesterday.
“The issue is not one of selling principles for money, food or foreign aid,” the news agency quoted him as saying. “Otherwise, we would have to justify the attitude of any corrupt person who sold his honor for money, and this is categorically unacceptable for us in Syria in principle and from a moral perspective.”