Sunni General, Friend Abandons Syria’s Assad

The defection of a top Syrian officer appears to be the first crack in Bashar Assad’s inner circle.

Amid new reports of Syrian government shelling on the northwestern city of Khan Sheikhoun, which has been controlled by the Free Syrian Army for months, Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle suffered a humiliating defection from one of its closest supporters.

Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, one of the highest-ranking Sunni military officers in the Syrian army, ditched his uniform and fled to Turkey last week, where Free Syrian army spokesmen have said he is now safe.

Tlas’ flight to Turkey comes after hundreds of conscript soldiers and dozens of Syrian army officers over the past two weeks have deserted the Syrian military in response to the government’s escalating crackdown on its own people. In one of the largest batches yet to befall the regime, 85 soldiers quit the military earlier last week.

One of the most intractable problems that the anti-Assad resistance movement has had over the last sixteen months is the opposition’s trouble in attracting regime insiders to its cause. Unlike in Libya, where cabinet officials, diplomats, generals and soldiers departed Muammar al-Gaddafi’s government early in the uprising, President Assad has kept most of his inner circle intact and supportive. Up until last week week, the only people who had chosen to leave the army were conscripted and low level soldiers (estimates range in the tens of thousands). The generals have stuck by Assad’s regime, either out of pure loyalty, financial reward or fear of what would happen to their families if they decided to flee the country.

The story of Manaf Tlas is a blow to that narrative. Assad’s officer corps is still far more united than most would have expected at this point in the conflict but the desertion of a close ally of the president’s is an indication that the heart of the regime may be starting to crack.

Tlas’ trek into Turkey is not only significant because of his military rank (opposition activists claim that Tlas is the most senior officer to quit the regime since the revolt began). A far more important fact is that Manaf Tlas was a regime insider in every sense of the word, studying with Bashar al-Assad when the two were in military training together during the 1990s. His father, Mustafa Tlas, was the defense minister of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, for close to thirty years. Manaf’s father was also reportedly responsible for smoothing Bashar’s transition to president after Hafez’ original heir to the throne, Basil, was killed in a car crash in 1994.

Manaf Tlas made his career commanding a unit of the Republican Guard, a branch of the military that is considered to be the most loyal and devoted to President Assad and has been called upon by the regime many times over the past year and a half to safeguard Damascus from an ever evolving rebel movement.

The bolting of Tlas is rumored to be the first such defection from the Republican Guard which, if replicated by other Sunni commanders, would expose just how sectarian the Assad regime has become in response to the Sunni dominated resistance.

Whether or not more Sunni generals choose to make the trip to Turkey could very well depend on their personal means. If there was anyone in the Syrian military who could afford to leave Syria, it was Manaf Tlas, whose family was already out of the country. Other officers with a less privileged or fortunate position may not be willing to take the chance if the regime will be able to track down, imprison or kill their family members in retaliation.

In the short term, scratching one regime loyalist off the list will not make any difference in the fight between the Syrian regime and the insurgency. However, Manaf’s defection holds a powerful example to other officers and soldiers who have mulling over their own desertions. As the violence in Syria continues to increase and as more Syrians continue to die, the possibility that other figures in the regime will either give up the fight or switch their allegiance to the opposition becomes more likely, even expected.