Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, a son of former defence minister Mustafa Tlass and a former commander of an elite Republican Guard unit in Syria, confirmed his defection from the Baath controlled regime in Damascus. Although the renegade officer allegedly arrived in Paris at least two weeks ago, the mystery surrounding his intentions were finally clarified only last Tuesday, when he read a statement on the television network Al Arabiya.

“Our revolution should be against corruption and oppressors, but without destroying the social fabric, for Syria is bigger than individuals,” he insisted, which was interpFreted as a disavowal of the ruling family in general and President Bashar Al Assad in particular. Because Bashar and Manaf grew up together, and presumably trusted each other through thick and thin, the defection was a severe blow.

As the highest ranking member of the president’s inner circle, the 48-year-old debonair officer took his time to prepare his exit, and may have joined his father in Paris. Initial reports suggested that he defected to Turkey in early July, 2012, along with 23 other officers after Damascus suspected he contacted leading opposition figures.

More recent but unconfirmed reports implied that he first crossed the border into north Lebanon several weeks ago, and hid with a Christian family in the Kisrwan region, while preparations were made to “fly” him out to Cyprus on a helicopter from a foreign embassy that allowed him to avoid travel through the Beirut International Airport. In the event, his wife Tala Khayr — the daughter of a renowned Damascus intellectual and the granddaughter of the nationalist businessman Adeb Khayr — and his son Ahmad were in Lebanon when Manaf Tlass “left” Damascus, before they too went to France.

Bashar’s confidant

The Tlass family, which hailed from Rastan (near Homs), was one of Syria’s prominent Sunni Muslim dynasties with various members serving Ottoman suzerains as well as French occupiers in the aftermath of the First World War. Manaf’s father, Mustafa, befriended Hafez Al Assad at the military academy in Homs, before the two officers served together in Cairo during the ill-fated 1958-1961 merger between Syria and Egypt in the United Arab Republic. Close friendships developed over time, including when Mustafa smuggled Hafez’s wife and sons to Damascus, after Jamal Abdul Nasser briefly imprisoned the Syrian at the break-up of the union.

Manaf was Born in Rastan in 1964 to Mustafa and Lamia Al Jabiri who hailed from an aristocratic Aleppo family. His brother, Firas, a leading businessman and his two sisters, Nahid, the spouse of the late Syrian-Saudi arms merchant Akram Ojjeh, and Sarya, who married into a prominent Lebanese family from Baalbek, were all active Baath Party members. Manaf became a member of the Central Committee in 2000 and stood by Bashar, a military academy classmate. After 2000, Manaf became Bashar’s confidant and helped the inexperienced head of state secure his base within the critical Sunni merchant classes.

Optimistic about the future of the country, the Tlass clan assumed that Bashar Al Assad would advocate and introduce political reforms, which was why they stood by Damascus. Although the president ousted Mustafa from any state responsibilities in May 2002, allegedly on Assef Shawkat’s recommendation, Manaf continued to enjoy Bashar’s confidence. He was rewarded for his loyalty and promoted to a one-star general in the Republican Guards.

Political solution

As the violence increased, Manaf objected to the wholesale destruction that befell Syria, including on his hometown of Rastan where various massacres cost dearly. He was allegedly one of the first government officials to meet with the opposition in March 2011, ostensibly with the president’s consent, to open a dialogue and find a political solution. Whether these efforts raised suspicions and led to his house arrest from May 2011 until his defection could not be confirmed.

After President Francois Hollande confirmed Manaf was in Paris on July 2012, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius asserted that the former officer met with members of the Syrian National Council to plan for the future. In his Al Arabiya statement, Manaf called on Syrians to unite and to look towards a post-revolutionary Syria. He called on the “Honourable Syrian army officers… not [to] accept the criminal acts,” and to allow him “to serve Syria after [President Bashar] Al Assad’s era.”

In clear terms that did not hide his ambitions, Manaf stressed that everyone “must unite to serve Syria and promote stability in the country”. He repeated: “Allow me to call on a united Syria, the new Syria... [that] should not be built on revenge, exclusion or monopoly.”

Although he did not blame troops who were still loyal to the Baath regime, he nevertheless placed his cards on the table, as he added: “Whatever mistakes made by some members of the Syrian Arab Army... those honourable troops who have not partaken in the killing... are the extension of the Free Syrian Army.”

It was clear that he at least saw a role for himself in the nation’s next chapter.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (Routledge, 2012).