Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, the most prominent defector from Syria’s armed forces, called on the country’s citizens to unite as they prepare for the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
A new Syria “will not be built on vengeance, exclusion or monopoly,” Tlas said in his first public appearance since he left the country about two weeks ago. “Our role today as Syrians is to assure each other, and to make the regime and everyone who wants to ignite the struggle in Syria miss their chance.” Tlas spoke on Al Arabiya television, which later showed footage of him in the holy Saudi city of Mecca wrapped in the white seamless clothes worn by pilgrims.
His appearance came as rebels battled government forces in the old part of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and in his hometown of Rastan in Homs province, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Abdel Rahman said the army has sent reinforcements to Aleppo and that helicopters were shelling rebel hideouts there. “What’s happening there is street fighting,” he said in a phone interview from Coventry in the U.K. “The rebels have taken over some streets, but not sections of the city.” In the capital, Damascus, security forces are in control, he said.
The Free Syrian Army posted a link to a video on Twitter in which the rebels display machineguns, ammunition and gas masks they say they captured in a raid on an army post in Aleppo.
State television said government troops clashed with a “terrorist group” in several Aleppo neighborhoods yesterday, inflicting heavy losses. It also said authorities were dealing with an attack that some “terrorist, mercenary” prisoners at a jail in Homs have launched against other inmates.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops have been trying to storm the jail to end an insurrection that began last week, and that many inmates have been killed and wounded.
International and regional efforts have failed to end the violence in Syria, which began in March 2011 and has left at least 19,000 dead, including about 5,000 government troops, according to the Observatory. Another activist group, the opposition Local Coordination Committees in Syria, said 86 people have been killed across Syria so far today.
The worsening conflict forced the United Nations observer mission in Syria, which had about 300 monitors in the country, to suspend its operations last month. About half of the military observers “have been for the time being sent back to their countries,” Herve Ladsous, the UN’s undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, told reporters in Damascus today.
Tlas, a Sunni Muslim, was a confidant of Assad, who is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. More than 70 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni and Assad and his ruling minority depend on the loyalty of Sunni officers.
Formerly a commander in the elite Republican Guard, Tlas 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.
Al Arabiya reported today that Syria’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Abdel Latif al-Dabbagh, has defected. The channel said yesterday that his wife, Lamia Hariri, who is Syria’s charge d’affaires in Cyprus, had also defected and is now in Qatar.
Turkey is closing all of its border gates with Syria today, NTV television reported citing Hayati Yazici, the minister for customs and trade. It has also stopped its trucks carrying goods to Syria due to “serious concerns” about security, Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan told reporters today.
Trucks will continue to be admitted from Syria, Caglayan said. He said trade with Syria has dropped 80 percent before the steps were made and exporters will continue shipping goods to north African markets such as Libya and Egypt by boat, he said.