Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, a commander of the Republican Guard in Syria and a close confidant of President Bashar al-Assad, has defected to Turkey, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius confirmed today.
The number of high-ranking officers quitting Mr. Assad’s forces has increased markedly in recent days as violence has mounted. But the departure of General Tlass was the first from within the gilded circle around the president since the uprising against him began in March 2011, representing the kind of embarrassing departure long anticipated to indicate that the government’s cohesion was cracking.
Not only is General Tlass a contemporary and friend of President Assad, he is also part of a powerful dynasty dating to the days when his father, Gen. Mustafa Tlass, was defense minister from 1972 to 2004, acting as a key ally of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian leader, as he created the repressive system that controls the country.
The suggestion that the defection from the inner circle is perhaps an indicator of the breakup of the Assad regime is the best news we’ve seen out of the country for some time. In June, the month after the UN’s cease-fire agreement with both sides of the Syrian conflict, violence grew worse than at any other time in the uprising. Almost 3,000 Syrians died in June, showing the cease-fire agreement to be worthless. The UN suspended its monitoring mission recently, and the situation has devolved into civil war.
Tlass’ defection, however, could really be a signal. Opposition leaders and officials from more than 100 countries are meeting in Paris this week on the Syrian situation, trying to come up with a framework for a transitional government after Assad. Until now, this would be seen as a pipe dream. But the defection changes the calculations a bit.
Syrian opposition leaders want the international community to put a no-fly zone in place, but Western diplomats prefer a sanctions regime. It’s unclear whether a lot of the violence in Syria is coming from the air, so I’m not sure what a no-fly zone would accomplish, other than a signal of the Western appetite for intervention. The opposition pronounced that they “will no longer be satisfied with declarations,” which has been all the feckless international community has managed to muster to this point.
Tlass, the general, had responsibility over calming uprisings in the Damascus suburbs. With his departure, we could see those spread to the heart of the capital. But every other metric suggests a long and bloody civil war.