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Syrian defector wants to help unify opposition

- Associated Press - Thursday, July 26, 2012

BEIRUT — Syria's most prominent defector is promoting himself as someone to unite the fractured opposition as the disparate factions were set to gather in Qatar Thursday to try to agree on a transitional leadership if Syrian President Bashar Assad is toppled.

Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a commander in the powerful Republican Guard and the son of a former defense minister who was the most trusted lieutenant of the Mr. Assad's father, defected in early July and flew to Paris.

He is now in Saudi Arabia, a key financial backer of the rebellion, where he told the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily that he does not see a future for Syria with Mr. Assad in power.

"I will try and help as much as I can to unite all the honorable people inside and outside Syria to put together a road map to get us out of this crisis, whether there is a role for me or not," he said.

In the three weeks since his defection, he has only spoken publicly twice, both times to Saudi-controlled media.

Gen. Tlass, once a close confidant of Mr. Assad's, said the regime has many good people without blood on their hands and the country's institutions should be preserved.

He said he had tried to persuade Mr. Assad not to listen to his inner circle of security advisers who were all counseling for a harsh crackdown on the uprising, which began as peaceful protests in March 2011 but morphed into a civil war.

He said he defected when he realized the regime could not be deterred from its single-minded pursuit of crushing the opposition.

"Sometimes in a friendship you advise a friend many times, and then you discover that you aren't having any impact, so you decide to distance yourself," he said.

The meeting in Doha focused on forming a transitional administration that could step in as a stopgap government if rebel forces topple Mr. Assad. It marks the most comprehensive bid to bring together various Syrian opposition groups and show world leaders a credible alternative to the regime.

It is not clear, however, whether Gen. Tlass would be an acceptable leadership figure for the opposition or the rebels fighting on the ground, especially considering how close his family has been to the regime.

For decades, Gen. Tlass' father, Mustafa Tlass, served as defense minister under Hafez Assad, the current president's father.

Gen. Tlass is already facing resistance from some members of the Syrian opposition.

"Those who recently defected from the regime must not take part in leading the transitional period," said Mahmoud Othman, an Istanbul-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council, adding that the Syrian people were paying too high a price in blood to replace Mr. Assad with someone who was close to him.

Meanwhile, rebels who have been fighting for six days in the commercial capital Aleppo braced themselves amid reports that the government was massing reinforcements to retake the embattled city of 3 million. They reported more intense firepower being used against them, including artillery strikes as well as strafing by attack helicopters and fighter jets.

"Regime forces have been randomly shelling neighborhoods and the civilians are terrified," local activist Mohammed Saeed said via Skype.

The clashes have spread to downtown neighborhoods of Aleppo, which has a medieval center that is a UNESCO world heritage site. The Syrian Observatory estimated that 114 rebels and civilians were killed in Aleppo between Saturday and Wednesday in the fighting.

July is on track to be the bloodiest month so far in the uprising, with nationwide death tolls estimated at well over 100 people a day, according to the Observatory. Activists say 19,000 have been killed since the uprising began.

Doctors Without Borders estimated on Thursday that 120,000 people have fled the country since the uprising began.

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