PARIS (AP) — A top Syrian general’s defection is the first major crack in the upper echelons of President Bashar Assad’s regime, buoying a 100-nation conference Friday meant to intensify pressure for his removal, as well as an opposition desperate to bring him down but frustrated by diplomatic efforts.
All hoped the defection of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister who helped ease Assad into power, would have a snowball effect on his elite cohorts as Syrians count their dead — now more than 14,000.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Syrian leaders “are starting to vote with their feet” by abandoning the four-decade-old Assad dynasty, which continues to defy international efforts for peace. “Those with the closest knowledge of Assad’s actions and crimes are moving away,” she told reporters at the close of the conference.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was more blunt. Tlass‘ defection means that even the inner circle of Syria’s ruler is starting to realize “that you cannot support a butcher like Mr. Bashar Assad,” he declared.
The conference of the so-called “Friends of Syria” group brought together the U.S., its European and Arab partners, and the fractious Syrian opposition, all looking to turn up the heat to force Assad from power.
A series of commitments included providing means for the opposition on the ground to better communicate among themselves and with the outside world, and increasing humanitarian aid.
Participants vowed to find ways to ensure that sanctions are enforced and called on the U.N. Security Council to urgently adopt a resolution that would give force to a six-point plan by envoy Kofi Annan and endorse a transition plan adopted in Geneva — broad enough to get acceptance by Russia and China, which have blocked most action in the Security Council.
But the announcement of Tlass‘ defection upstaged the declarations. It was unclear where he was going. Fabius initially said he was headed to France, where his sister lives, then backtracked and said his destination was unknown. It was also not clear whether Tlass was actually joining the struggle against Assad — as was widely assumed.
The news bolstered hopes and helped allay frustrations among the varied opposition groups, many of whom want a concrete plan to oust Assad.
“The defection of Tlass, 16 months after the start of Syria’s popular uprising, will encourage a lot of similar people to defect as well,” Hassem Hashimi, a member of the Syrian National Council, predicted in an interview with The Associated Press in Paris.
The hope that it will inspire others to leave and open cracks in Assad’s power base was one element that put opposition members on the same wave length as diplomats.
Tlass was a close friend and contemporary of Assad and, as the son of longtime Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, was a member of the Syrian Baath Party aristocracy, part of a privileged class that flourished under the Assad dynasty.
“I think it’s a major blow to Assad to see somebody who’s a close confidant defect at this point,” said Abdel Basset Sida, head of the Syrian National Council. “This shows us that the very heart of the regime is starting to crumble.”
Mustafa Tlass and Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, had been close friends since their days in the Syrian military academy in Homs and became even closer after being posted to Cairo in the late 1950s. After Hafez Assad rose to power in the early 1970s, Mustafa Tlass became defense minister and the Syrian president’s most trusted lieutenant as he created the repressive system that still controls the country.
When Hafez Assad died of a heart attack in 2000, the elder Tlass helped engineer Bashar Assad’s succession to the presidency and guided the new leader, an inexperienced young doctor. Tlass was the leader of a coterie of old regime figures that critics blamed for reining in moves to liberalize the Syrian regime.