Syrian Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas became the first member of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle to defect since the uprising against the government began last year.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced the defection of Tlas, formerly a commander in the elite Republican Guard, at a Friends of Syria meeting today in Paris. The son of ex-Defense Minister Mustapha Tlas, he headed Brigade 105 in the Revolutionary Guard, according to the pro-government website Syria Steps.
“Regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the defection at a press conference in Paris. “Those who have the closest knowledge of Assad’s actions and crimes are moving away, and we think that’s a very promising development.”
Syria’s government is fighting a growing insurrection in which more than 10,000 people have died, according to United Nations estimates. At least 36 people were killed today, 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.
“This will shake the regime to its bones,” Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said in an e-mailed response to questions about Tlas. “Opposition groups have been complaining that the elite are not leaving the regime. That complaint can now officially be put to rest.”
Landis said Tlas was a Sunni Muslim and a confidant of Assad, who is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. His defection “underscores the very real worry that this war is turning into a civil war drawn along religious, communal lines with the Alawites remaining loyal and the Sunnis, even highly ranked Sunnis, going over to the side of the rebels,” he said.
“If that happens, the regime will fall apart,” Landis added. “The Alawites cannot rule Syria alone.”
Clinton told the Paris meeting that Russia and China are blocking progress toward a settlement in Syria and urged 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 delegations 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,” she said.
Clinton made her call as opposition figures at the meeting advocated a no-fly zone and criticized the group for moving too slowly to help Syrian civilians.
“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.”
Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have protected Syria from censure and show no signs of shifting, even as Clinton and others at the meeting advocated stronger UN sanctions. The gathering was called to discuss ways to increase support for the Syrian opposition and pressure on Assad.
Russia didn’t attend this Friends of Syria meeting. It did send representatives to a Syrian opposition meeting in Cairo on July 2 and 3. Fabius said he will discuss Syria when he travels to China next week.
“I’ll explain to them that there is no greater disorder than what’s going on right now, and no one can imagine that the country will make a democratic transition under Bashar al-Assad,” he told reporters.
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 today.
“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.”
Fabius told reporters that the defection of Tlas is a “big blow to the regime.”
Tlas left the country after he learned the authorities discovered information about “his supervision of terrorist operations in Syria,” the pro-government Syria Steps cited an unnamed security official as saying. Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi didn’t answer calls seeking comment.
While the defection is a blow to the government, “unfortunately it won’t bring it down,” Haitham Maleh, a prominent opposition figure, said by phone from Aachen, Germany,