A Syrian general and personal friend of President Bashar al-Assad has reportedly defected and fled Syria ahead of “Friends of Syria” talks in Paris between Western and Arab leaders.
Opposition activists have told Al Jazeera said that Manaf Tlas, a brigade commander in Assad’s Republican Guard, has fled to Turkey and will soon announce that he abandoned Assad because of anger at civilian deaths.
The sources said Tlas had left his official position and was traveling to Paris, where some of his family lives, on Friday .
If Tlas, who attended military college with the 46-year-old Assad, throws his support behind the opposition, he would be the closest member of the Syrian leader’s inner circle to switch sides during the 16-month uprising.
Tlas is the son of Mustafa Tlas, who served as defence minister for 30 years under former president Hafez al-Assad and briefly under his son, the current president.
A witness in Damascus said by telephone that Tlas’ house in Damascus was ransacked on Thursday by security agents after these reports.
Riad al-Asaad, the commander with the Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera from Turkey: “Our people picked [Tlas] up from the borders with Syria”. Asaad said on Thursday that he had not yet met with Tlas.
Ankara did not immediately confirm the reports. Syriasteps, a news website close to Assad’s security services, quoted a Syrian official as saying Tlas was in Turkey.
Syriasteps wrote: “His desertion means nothing. If Syrian intelligence had wanted to arrest him it would have.”
A source in the opposition said a relative of Tlas had confirmed his defection.
“It’s a very important defection,” the source said. “His brigade is very attached to their general, so we can say the true defection has started.”
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.
The Tlas family is from Rastan, in central Homs province, a town that has seen large anti-government protests since the uprising began in March 2011.
Rastan later witnessed heavy fighting between regime forces and members of the Free Syrian Army. It is now mostly under the control of the opposition.
According to the source with close ties to Damascus, Tlas had embarked on several unsuccessful reconciliation missions between regime loyalists and rebels in Rastan and the southern province of Daraa.
A member in the elite Republican Guard, which is tasked with protecting the regime, Tlas was sidelined more than a year ago, after he was deemed unreliable.
Months later he gave up his military uniform and opted for civilian clothing. He set up residence in Damascus, where he let his beard and hair grow long.
Another source in Damascus told AFP news agency that Tlas’ relations with the authorities became irreconcilable after the regime’s fierce assault on the Homs district of Bab Amr in February this year.
The father of Tlas, who served as defence minister between 1972 and 2004, was in office during the 1982 Hama Massacre, which reportedly left between 20,000 and 48,000 people dead.
Many opposition activists accuse the older Tlas of complicity, and have called for him to be prosecuted for war crimes.
Another member of the Tlas family is Abdul Razzak Tlas, a popular commander of the FSA in Homs and a former First Lieutenant in the the Syrian army who defected last year.
Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister of Turkey, said defections proved that the Syrian government is crumbling.
“There are soldiers escaping, they are reporting to us that they are being instructed to attack people and because of that they had to escape in order not to kill civilians,” Davutoglu told France 24 television.
“Every day, generals, colonels, officers are coming, and we have, I think, around 20 generals and maybe 100 high-rank officers, colonels.”
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