Have tens of thousands of Syrians sacrificed their lives rising up against Bashar al Assad just so that the U.S. and its allies can have a say in who might replace him? I don’t think so.
There is, the Wall Street Journal reports, a “relative lack of Western options” for Assad’s replacement.
A relative lack? Why should there be any Western options in a choice that belongs to the Syrian people alone?
The Obama administration and officials of some Arab and Western nations are discussing ways to place Syria’s highest-ranking military defector at the center of a political transition in the Arab state, according to U.S. and Middle East officials.
The focus on Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a childhood friend of President Bashar al-Assad, is increasing as hopes fade for prospects that an umbrella resistance group, the Syrian National Council, can galvanize the opposition, the officials said.
Efforts to find a transitional figure who is palatable to the Assad regime’s Russian backers and leading Arab states, as well as to the opposition, have taken on added urgency as rebel fighters make gains in major Syrian cities and more high-level officials defect, the officials said.
The officials said Gen. Tlass is one of the few figures in opposition to the regime who could potentially help restore order in Damascus and secure Syria’s vast chemical-weapons stockpile.
Gen. Tlass was a commander in Syria’s elite Republican Guard before his July 6 defection, and his father served as defense minister under Mr. Assad’s late father, Hafez al-Assad, for 30 years.
He is also, unlike the Assad clan, a Sunni Muslim—which Western officials hope could make him acceptable as a transitional figure to the country’s rebel fighters and opposition leaders, who are also largely from the Sunni sect of Islam.
“It’s too early to say if Tlass will stand the strain and pick up traction or just fade away,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “The next week or two will reveal his credentials and attractiveness to the various components internally and internationally.”
But the focus on Gen. Tlass also underscores the dearth of figures who can present a viable alternative to Mr. Assad. Many in the opposition consider Gen. Tlass and his family too closely tied to the Assads’ repression and corruption to be acceptable to Syrians. They also question his ability to win over members of Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, which makes up 12% of Syria’s population and appears largely unified behind the regime.
“Someone like Tlass is difficult to sell to the Syrian people,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, an anti-Assad activist based in Washington. “He certainly can’t play any leading role in a transition.”
The relative lack of Western options became clear this week, when the European Union’s foreign ministers shifted from its longtime support of the Syrian National Council, a largely émigré group that Brussels had made an official interlocutor in early 2012. On Monday, EU foreign ministers dropped all reference to the group in its statement on Syria.
A turning point came at the Paris meeting of the Friends of Syria on July 6, a senior European diplomat said, when the SNC seemed to have no response to the EU’s calls for it to broaden its political base. They “just don’t seem to be making progress on this,” the diplomat said.
Gen. Tlass’s flight to Paris this month was cheered in Washington and Brussels as the clearest sign of cracks inside Damascus’s ruling elite. The majority of Syria’s officer corps hails from Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Gen. Tlass’s defection has been viewed as a potential rallying cry for the Syrian armed forces’ Sunni base to switch sides.
On Tuesday, Gen. Tlass went on television and pledged to facilitate change in his country and promote religious and racial harmony. He spoke from Saudi Arabia, looking slightly ill at ease in an open-neck shirt on the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network.
“I speak to you not as an official, but as one of the sons of Syria….One of the sons of the Syrian Arab army that rejects the criminal path of this corrupt regime,” he said.
Arab officials said his appearance in Saudi Arabia showed how the ruling al-Saud family is seeking a role for the Syrian officer. Saudi Arabia is the leading Sunni state backing Syria’s rebels against Mr. Assad, along with Qatar and Turkey.
A senior Arab official said Gen. Tlass’s trip to Saudi Arabia was arranged by the country’s new head of intelligence, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan. Diplomats at Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington weren’t available for comment.
The website of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya reporting on Tlass’s appearance on its own TV channel said: “The former general was believed to be speaking from Paris.” They also reported: “French officials later confirmed that he was in France.”
Since Tlass was speaking into an Al Arabiya microphone and filmed by an Al Arabiya camera, I’ll assume that Al Arabiya‘s own staff did not need to consult French officials in order to determine whether they were located in Paris or Riyadh. In other words, Al Arabiya knows exactly where Tlass gave the interview, it is only others who believed he was speaking from Paris and the French officials merely confirmed that he was in France prior to giving the interview.
I’m inclined to trust the WSJ‘s sources on the rather significant detail of Tlass’s location.
Here is Tlass making his statement in Arabic. The report below includes quotations:
Al Arabiya reports: Defected Syrian Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas called on Syrians to unite and look towards a post-revolutionary Syria, in a statement broadcast exclusively on Al Arabiya late Tuesday.
“I speak to you as a defected member of the Syrian army, who refuses criminal violence … I speak to you as one of the sons of Syria,” Tlas said, dressed in a light blue shirt with an open collar, his gray hair tussled.
The former general was believed to be speaking from Paris.
“Honorable Syrian army officers do not accept the criminal acts in Syria … Allow me to serve Syria after [President Bashar] al-Assad’s era.
“We must all unite to serve Syria and promote stability in the country, rebuilding a free and democratic Syria.”
“Allow me to call on a united Syria,” Tlas added.
Tlass said the “new Syria … should not be built on revenge, exclusion or monopoly.”
He said he did not blame those troops who have not defected, adding that “whatever mistakes made by some members of the Syrian Arab Army … those honorable troops who have not partaken in the killing … are the extension of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army.”
It was his first public appearance since he left Syria earlier this month. French officials later confirmed that he was in France.
His long silence raised questions about whether he had joined the anti-Assad uprising or merely fled the civil war.
Maybe Tlass could have a role in unifying Syria, but I doubt that his chances of doing so will be enhanced by getting the endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s autocratic rulers.