Manaf Tlass: Being groomed as the Syrian Ahmed Chalabi?

Manaf Tlas, a defector from the Assad regime, has it all: money, foreign friends, and a secular outlook. Now he's being pushed forward by foreign groups as Syria's strongman in waiting.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass walks with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, unseen, before a Ramadan fast-breaking dinner at Davutoglu's residence in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, July 26. The general, who defected from Syria, made a surprise visit to Turkey.

One of the problems of supporting revolutions in sharply divided societies, riven by sectarian tension and with much of the population furious after decades of abuse by their central government, is it's hard to put a strong stable government in place once the head has been cut off of the ancient regime.

One popular method for trying to deal with this problem (rarely successful) is to promote an exile who promises to be BFFs to take control of the nation. For the US, in the case of Iraq, that was Ahmed Chalabi, a man who turned out to have very little popularity in Iraq and ended up aligning his political fortunes with Iran and being blacklisted by the US intelligence establishment that once hung on his every word (oops).

Influential supporters of the Iraq war are already calling for round 2 in Syria

And today, a lonely foreign policy establishment is turning its eyes to Manaf Tlass, a recent defector from the Syrian regime. Mr. Tlass was a brigadier general in Bashar al-Assad's republican guard, and yet a member of the country's Sunni Arab majority (his father had served Assad's father Hafez as minister of defense). His family has profited handsomely from sweetheart business deals under Assad, yet this week he's promised to help usher in a new democratic era. And even better, the former regime henchman has a penchant for red wine and Cuban cigars; no Muslim Brotherhood supporter here! (He also has ties to some far-right groups in France.)

In the past few days after weeks of quiet in France, where he fled three weeks ago, he's been giving interviews and making videotaped statements. Today he traveled to Turkey, where he met with the foreign minister and promised to try to unite Syria's opposition.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal cited unnamed US officials as saying they were "discussing ways to place Syria's highest-ranking military defector at the center of a political transition in the Arab state... 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."

Most people who follow Syria doubt the rebels who have been fighting since early last year against the Assad regime will have much time for Tlass. But those interested in the man and what he stands for should have a look at this essay by researcher Bassam Haddad, who met the man a few years ago.

"That night, I was introduced to Tala’s husband, Manaf Tlass, as a “Syria researcher” working on the “Syrian economy.” At the time, Manaf was one of the regime’s top strongmen, working side by side with Mahir al-Asad (the president’s younger brother) as a commander of elite units in the Republican Guard. It was too dark to make out his features. Most of what I saw was the big round flame at the tip of the cigar that seemed surgically attached to his fingers, if not his lips. He asked a few questions. I answered politely. I knew who he was, and thought it was odd that he mingled so freely... On a subsequent trip, at a birthday party in another of those restaurants, I met Manaf again. This time, he asked someone to ask me to come to his table. Usually, that is not a good thing... Manaf was quite candid and seemed more interested in conversation than surveillance. Still, I hesitated for some time before friends advised me not to skip out on the meeting. At the time, Manaf was a rising star, quite close to the Asad family. Regime strongmen had regained their swagger after several years of “consolidation” that took place after the succession of Bashar to the presidency. It was a day to begin making Syria anew, with a younger and more contemplative, though less seasoned, leadership. The theme was less “reform” than “modernization,” less “change” than “continuity."

To be sure, some argue (like Joshua Landis, who lived in Syria for years and has good regime contacts) that he fled Syria after he favored more velvet glove, and less iron fist, in dealing with the uprising.

But in the end, Tlass is a child of wealth and privilege, closely associated with the abuses of the Assad regime, who only recently jumped ship. His star is unlikely to rise as quickly among Syria's rebels as it did among the Baath regime he served for so long.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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