- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 7, 2012

BEIRUT — One of Syria’s most prominent defectors has been touring regional powers to seek support for the uprising, but many in the opposition are deeply suspicious of the handsome former general, a longtime friend of President Bashar Assad with a taste for expensive cigars.

They suspect he is just trying to vault to power.

The controversy over Gen. Manaf Tlass reflects the divisions among the forces seeking to topple the Syria regime and the difficulties they face in agreeing on leadership that can pose a credible alternative to Mr. Assad. Some rebel leaders worry that the countries supporting their fight are using their money and influence to steer the Syrian revolution and determine the country’s future.

Gen. Tlass was the first member of Mr. Assad’s inner circle to abandon the regime since the uprising began in March 2011. His defection in early July was hailed as a resounding triumph by the opposition.

This week, Prime Minister Riad Hijab joined the parade of defectors, the highest-ranking member of Mr. Assad’s government to do so. Two other Cabinet ministers and three military officers defected with him, according the Free Syrian Army.

To the international community — particularly Sunni power brokers Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — Gen. Tlass may appear the perfect figure to lead a transitional government.

As a secular Sunni Muslim with a military background and insider’s knowledge of the regime, Gen. Tlass would seem to hold credentials to play a bridge role if the regime falls by keeping the country’s military and security forces intact.

‘Syrian street’ will decide

However, his recent jet-setting and warm reception in Saudi Arabia and Turkey have fueled suspicions that he is ingratiating himself with regional powers propping him up for a major role. Saudi Arabia is a key financial backer of the rebellion, and Turkey is host to much of the opposition.

“It seems there are foreign and Arab countries who have plans for him, but the Syrian street will decide who it wants,” said Anwar Saadeddine, a brigadier general who, like Gen. Tlass, defected, but in May. Along with other for top officers, Gen. Saadeddine is helping direct the rebels from a camp along the border in Turkey.

All the major figures in the opposition, including political and military defectors, are trying to position themselves for a role in a future Syria, said Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

The longer Syria’s civil war drags on, the more activists on the scene will gain strength; and it will be harder for exile figures to carve themselves a slice of power.

“External actors, including former generals like Tlass, will have less maneuverability to inject themselves in these new political configurations,” Ms. Slim said.

U.S. also suspicious

Gen. Tlass denies any leadership ambitions.

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