As the assassination today of several Syrian ministers moves the crisis into higher gear, Syrian defector Gen. Manaf Tlass, a former member of the inner Assad family circle, has surfaced in Paris, ending two weeks of speculation about his whereabouts.
"He is here," French President François Hollande told reporters Tuesday evening, confirming that Tlass, the former commander of the elite 105th Republican guard, has been in Paris since escaping Syria by way of Turkey late last month.
Tlass also released a written statement last night to the media, describing how he had been isolated in Syria after disagreeing with the scope and scale of military attacks on civilians.
“I can only express my anger and pain to see the Army forced to fight a battle against its own [military] principles. It is a battle being led by security forces in which the people and ordinary soldiers are the victims…. My conscience and convictions drove me to oppose and distance myself from this destructive crackdown.”
He called for a “constructive transition” away from Syria’s current regime of President Bashar al-Assad – even as fighting intensified today in Damascus, and opposition rebels claimed a turning point in the 17-month conflict that started as a peaceful protest for more rights and freedoms, the tail end of the “Arab Spring.”
A bombing in Damascus today killed Defense Minister Daoud Rajha, Interior Minister Mohammad Shaar, Gen. Hassan Turkmani, and Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat. The bombing shows the increasing reach of the rebels – even into the Assad family, as Mr. Shawkat is the president's brother-in-law – and may create psychological shock waves for the regime, analysts say.
“Things may start to move very fast now,” argues Karim Emile Bitar, senior fellow with the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).
Omran Zoabi, Syria’s information minister, today told state TV that the fighting in Damascus was sparked by outside forces and internal terrorists.
By coincidence, Tlass's father, Mustafa Tlass, had himself been the defense minister in Syria and a close friend since 1952 of Hafez al-Assad, the former ruler and Assad’s father. Manaf Tlass and his brothers grew up in the same elite Damascus social and school-chum circles with Bashar and his four brothers – even as their fathers went on to become the top authorities of the nation.
But in the past year, members of the Tlass family have, one by one, fled Syria. Now, Mustafa and Tlass's sister, Nahed Ojjeh, are living in Paris, where Ms. Ojjeh is a prominent socialite who once dated a former French foreign minister.
"France has a longstanding relationship with the Tlass family, going back to the 1980s. Manaf’s sister … throws lavish dinner parties and infiltrated the French political and media elites,” says Mr. Bitar. “When she became the mistress of a foreign minister, there was a national security risk for France, but the president then chose to turn a blind eye because he felt there was need for backchannel diplomacy between France and the Assad regime."
"Given these old ties, France today might be thinking of grooming Manaf Tlass and counting on him to play an important role in the post-Assad transition phase."
Tlass is just one of several recent high-profile defections from the Assad regime. Last week, another significant Syrian defection – Ambassador to Iraq Nawas Fares, a Sunni from the east of Syria – showed cracks in the regime. And in recent days, unconfirmed reports suggest further defections in Syria’s officer corps.
This week also brings a hotly contested UN Security Council vote on sanctions and whether to renew former UN General-Secretary Kofi Annan's stalled peace plan for Syria. Russia and China have been opposed to a more robust wording of a Security Council resolution that would invoke Chapter Seven status, allowing for military intervention to deliver aid if necessary.