In what could be the biggest defection from Bashar al-Assad's regime since the start of the Syrian uprising, a senior general and friend of the president has fled the country and is making his way to Paris, according to multiple reports.
The BBC reports that Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, a commander in Syria's elite Republican guard, escaped his home in Damascus, where he was under a form of house arrest, and fled to Turkey in the past few days. General Tlas reportedly split with the regime out of frustration with its deadly crackdown on the opposition. The BBC writes that it is unclear what Tlas's intentions are, but notes that Paris is currently hosting a conference of more than 100 countries that are attempting to resolve the violence in Syria.
Tlas's defection has been confirmed by sources both inside and outside Assad's regime. The pro-government website Syriasteps cited a Syrian official acknowledging Tlas's departure, reports the Daily Telegraph, though the official dismissed Tlas's escape as "not mean[ing] anything." And two other officials, one a Syrian rebel, the other an American, both confirmed Tlas's defection, reports Al Jazeera.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity from Washington, said, "General Tlas is a big name and his apparent decision to ditch Assad hurts, even though it probably didn't come as a surprise".
"Tlas lately seems to have been on the outs, but he's got charisma and some smarts. If he joins the insurgents, that could be significant," the official said.
Joshua Landis of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma wrote on his blog, Syria Comment, that his eyewitness sources say Tlas's home in Damascus was being ransacked on Thursday.
Tlas's defection is particularly noteworthy because of his place in the highest echelons of the Syrian government. Tlas is a friend of President Assad's, and commander of a brigade of Syria's Republican Guard, an elite force headed by the president's brother, Maher al-Assad. Tlas's father, Mustafa, served as Syria's defense minister from 1972 to 2004.
The BBC writes that Tlas's father, now retired, is currently reported to be in Paris.
And The Daily Star of Lebanon notes that unlike most of Assad's regime, who are members of the minority Alawite sect, the Tlas family is part of Syria's Sunni majority, and that Tlas's defection "may reflect an erosion of support for the president among wealthy Sunnis."
Jeff White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, described the defection, if confirmed, as “significant.”
“He is/was, a commander of an important key regime protection unit, and closely associated with the regime,” White told The Daily Star via email.
“[It] could be a signal that the Sunni officers sticking with the regime so far are beginning to reconsider their options. [It] will be a concern to the regime of course, and could set off a witch-hunt with further damage to the cohesion of the army.”
The Guardian's Martin Chulov said that Tlas was not "a direct member of the inner sanctum, but he was certainly taken into the confidence of the inner sanctum," and that despite the Syrian government's dismissal of Tlas's defection, "it does matter."
He was one of the most trusted members of the Sunni community within the government. [Tlass] came from Rastan which has been particularly heavily hit. He had been known to be disaffected for some months and there had been rumours that he was under virtual house arrest.
[The defection] was the talk of the town this morning. We were out and about with various rebels in southern Turkey. They all knew about it and it had emboldened them. They thought that it would potentially be a lightening rod for other senior officers still inside Syria.
The Guardian notes that another general also defected from Syria in the past three days, according to a Turkish government official. Although not named, the general is from an engineering division, the official said.