The New York Times reports: Opponents of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria met with their international sponsors here on Friday to intensify pressure for his removal, buoyed by word that Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a commander in the elite Republican Guard, close friend of the president and a member of the Damascus aristocracy, had defected and fled the country.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the meeting that a “senior official” and commander of the Republican Guard had “defected and is on his way to Paris.” Ministry officials confirmed that Mr. Fabius was referring to General Tlass but did not say whether the Syrian general would join the talks.
Much attention at the meeting on Friday seemed certain to be devoted to General Tlass’s intentions.
Within the Damascus leadership, “Manaf is one of the regime’s main figures,” said Bashar al-Heraki, a member of the Syrian National Council, the umbrella political group in exile. “It is a negative sign for this regime,” Mr. Heraki said. “It has started to lose control.”
As one of the government’s most prominent Sunni Muslims, the elder General Tlass helped to disguise the fact that Hafez al-Assad relied on an inner circle composed mostly of his own minority Alawite sect.
The elder General Tlass was also said to have played a key role in the anointment of Bashar al-Assad as his father’s heir after his firstborn son, Basil, died at the wheel of his Mercedes in 1994.
At the official memorial service for Basil, the elder General Tlass was quoted as saying that he could see the light of Basil’s eyes shining from Bashar’s. Bashar soon became the heir apparent, ending his medical career and enrolling for military training, where the elder General Tlass promoted him and where his elevation into the officer corps coincided with that of Manaf’s.
In the second generation of the elite, families with two sons often divided their roles, with one going into business and the other joining the armed forces. It was true of Bashar’s first cousins, the Makhloufs, and it was true for the Tlass family.
Firas Tlass became a business tycoon, while Manaf — a charismatic figure — was promoted to a one-star general in the Republican Guards, one of the core units used in attempts to crush the current uprising. Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother, heads the praetorian force where Manaf served.
The president and Manaf were sometimes seen eating out together in Damascus.
“He’s a close friend to Bashar,” Mr. Heraki said. “So it is not only a strong strike against the regime, but the strongest message yet to Bashar that he is no longer safe, and a message to other officers thinking about defecting.”
Other opposition figures were less charitable, suggesting that General Tlass fled only to try to save the family’s substantial fortune as the government collapses.
The Tlass family came from Rastan, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city near Homs that has been under assault as a center for defecting officers. As the siege intensified, the Tlass family gradually left the country. Mustafa Tlass was said to have left for Paris in March, citing the need to seek medical treatment, while Firas was believed to be pursuing his business interests from the United Arab Emirates. He has kept a low profile, declining interview requests.
Manaf was believed to have at least one son enrolled at the American University of Beirut, where his wife also lived, and the reported defection came after the school year had ended.