Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, head of the U.N. mission in Syria, speaks… (Youssef Badawi, European…)
BEIRUT — Violence in Syria has surged to an "unprecedented level," the chief of the United Nations observer mission said Thursday, as reports surfaced of the most high-profile defection to date from the security forces of President Bashar Assad.
Gen. Robert Mood, who heads the observer team in Syria, painted a grim picture of a nation where both sides in the conflict seem determined to use force and show little appetite for compromise or dialogue.
"The violence is continuing and escalating because the parties involved have decided that their objectives are better served by using violence than by choosing a political process," Mood told reporters in Damascus, the Syrian capital. "It is not possible to sit down and have a dialogue in the middle of this kind of violence."
The comments from the Norwegian general are the latest indication that the situation in Syria is spiraling toward all-out civil war as diplomatic efforts have failed to produce any prospect for peace.
The U.N.'s unarmed observers, whose task was to monitor a cease-fire that never took hold, have largely been confined to their compounds in recent weeks because of the danger in the field.
Meanwhile, multiple reports were circulating that a high-ranking military commander and longtime Assad associate had left Syria and defected to the opposition.
There was no official confirmation, but the reported defection of Manaf Tlas probably would be the most significant yet from the Assad government.
Tlas is the son of Mustapha Tlas, a former defense minister and longtime intimate of the late Hafez Assad, who seized power in 1970, beginning the Assad family dynasty that is now facing its greatest challenge.
Reuters news service quoted rebel sources as saying the younger Tlas had left Damascus, and it also cited confirmation from a pro-Assad security website asserting that Tlas had deserted. Several opposition groups publicly reported the defection.
The younger Tlas was said to have commanded a brigade of the Republican Guard, seen as intensely loyal to Assad and headed by Assad's brother, Maher. Maher Assad is considered one of the key figures behind the crackdown on dissent that has morphed into a battle against dozens of rebel militias.
The Tlas family's background is significant as the conflict in Syria veers toward a sectarian showdown. The clan is part of the nation's Sunni Muslim majority, yet father and son held prominent roles in a security apparatus dominated by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The nearly 16-month-old rebellion is driven by Sunnis, who have long chafed under Alawite rule.
The Tlas family is from the town of Rastan in Homs province, the heart of the uprising. Rastan has been the scene of heavy fighting and government shelling. Most residents are believed to have fled the heavily damaged city.
Although defections from Assad's regime have made international headlines, most observers downplay their effect on the president's forces. More than a dozen generals and many other officers are reported to have fled, most to Turkey. A colonel in the air force deserted last month by flying his MiG-21 jet to Jordan.
Unlike Libya last year, however, there have been no reported defections of entire brigades or battalions. The opposition has repeatedly said military morale is near the breaking point, with soldiers facing a shortage of weapons and ammunition. But others maintain that the Alawite-dominated security core remains intact and loyal, possibly viewing the conflict as a fight for their very existence.
The defection of Tlas, if true, "could be a sign that Sunnis are beginning to break with the regime after years of being co-opted," Andrew J. Tabler and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote online.
With Alawites making up an estimated 12% of the Syrian population, successive Assad administrations have relied on Sunnis, like Tlas and his father, for some key security posts.
Assad's forces continue to demonstrate that with their superior firepower and access to artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships, government forces can chase rebels from insurgent-held areas.
Most recently, a government offensive ousted rebels from the Damascus suburb of Duma, long a hotbed of opposition. The rebels say scores of people were killed and that most residents fled Duma, which is now described as a largely rubble-strewn ghost town.
Meanwhile, the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said Thursday that it planned to release material from more than 2 million Syrian government emails that could prove embarrassing to Syrian officials as well as their foes. Several publications will be publishing accounts based on the leaked emails, WikiLeaks said.