An undated photo taken in Syria shows Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, right, with… (AFP/Getty Images )
BEIRUT — They were close friends and shared a singular lineage: Both were blood royalty of the Syrian leadership caste, birthright beneficiaries of their fathers' stranglehold on the nation.
But the conflict tearing Syrian apart also opened a deep rift between President Bashar Assad and Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, a brigade commander in the country's ultra-loyal Republican Guard. On Friday,France's foreign minister confirmed that Tlas had defected.
Tlas' departure from the Assad administration is the highest-profile to date, and many read the move as a sign that even Assad's inner circle is losing faith after 16 months of fighting, a savaged economy and international opprobrium.
"Regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday in Paris when asked about the incident.
It was unclear whether Tlas had actually defected and joined the opposition, or had just seized an opportunity to follow his father, former Defense minister Mustafa Tlas, and brother, Firas, a businessman, out of strife-ridden Syria. It was also not apparent whether Tlas, reportedly under close surveillance, fled from Syria clandestinely or had been permitted to leave.
The defection of a prominent member of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority is a symbolic blow against the intricate cross-sect scaffolding that has helped prop up Assad, who is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
That alliance was evident in the shared backgrounds of Assad and Tlas.
Assad, a ophthalmologist by training, became president after the death in 2000 of his father, Hafez Assad, the former air force pilot whose rise to power in 1970 initiated the family's dynastic rule.
Tlas, whose charm and easy-going demeanor belied his martial pedigree, followed in the military footsteps of his father, who was a long-time defense minister and fixer for Assad the elder.
Manaf Tlas and Bashar Assad are both in their mid-40s and said to have attended military college together.
For years, Syria's Alawite-dominated administration has counted on the support of military and business elites among the Sunni majority. Sunnis who, like the Tlas clan, backed Assad received ample benefits for their collaboration.
The "Tlas family has been at the heart of the regime from the beginning," Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said via email. "They are the keystone of the Sunni-Alawi alliance that has cemented the regime for four decades."
But the rebellion has arisen largely from the Sunni masses long disenchanted with the domination of Assad and fellow Alawites who mostly run the military and security services.
According to various accounts, the two men fell out last year after security hard-liners rejected Tlas' mediation efforts in several rebellious towns. Tlas hasn't commanded troops for months, and some have said he was lately living under a kind of house arrest, rumors swirling that he planned to join the growing ranks of defectors escaping to neighboring Turkey or elsewhere.
One Damascus-based diplomat who knew Tlas suggested that he may have been torn between his friendship with Bashar Assad and his opposition to the government's heavy-handed response to the uprising.
He described Tlas as charming and erudite — "a bit short and chubby, doesn't look at all like a Baath Party bureaucrat or a military man," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Tlas, a trained architect, was seen out on the Damascus club circuit, appeared comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt, and invited friends for concerts to his stunning, cliff-side vacation home, carved into the rock in the mountains outside Damascus. But Tlas is also said to have been a dedicated career military man who inspired trust among both his subordinates and the chief executive.
"He was a faithful friend of Bashar, but then again he was a Sunni from Rastan," said the diplomat, alluding to the Tlas' ancestral hometown.
Rastan, in Homs province, a major epicenter of the uprising, is a Sunni rebel stronghold that has reportedly been pummeled by artillery and tank fire and is now largely a rubble-strewn ghost town and urban combat zone.
"He tried to mediate in the beginning of the crisis back when the protest movement was mildly violent," the diplomat said. "And he succeeded with that."
His reconciliation efforts, however, were "sabotaged by other power-playing centers within the regime," the diplomat said.
According to Landis, Tlas had been ordered to put down a pair of restive Damascus suburbs, Duma and Harasta, largely Sunni areas where resentment of Assad is widespread. The general is said to have negotiated with the opposition and to have worked out a deal in which both sides agreed to pull back forces. But the Alawite-led security leadership, tied to Assad's "security solution," was not happy.