BEIRUT: Syria’s most prominent defector has been touring regional powers to garner 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, believing he is just trying to vault to power.
The controversy over Manaf Tlass reflects the divisions among the forces seeking to topple the Syria regime and the difficulties they face in agreeing on a leadership that can pose a credible alternative to Assad.
Tlass is the first member of Assad’s inner circle to abandon the regime since the uprising began in March 2011, and his defection in early July was hailed as a resounding triumph by the opposition.
To the international community, particularly Sunni powerhouses Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, he 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, Tlass would seem to hold credentials to play a bridging role if the regime falls, keeping the country’s military and security forces intact.
But 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 like Tlass who defected in May. Along with other generals, 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. But the longer Syria’s civil war drags on, the more domestic players on the ground will gain strength and it will be harder for exile figures to carve themselves a piece of power.
“External actors, including former generals like Tlass, will have less maneuverability to inject themselves in these new political configurations,” Slim said.
Tlass denies any leadership ambitions. “I did not leave Syria to lead a transitional period,” he said in an interview this week with the Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper.
“But I will try to help as much as I can to unite all the honorable people inside and outside Syria to put together a roadmap to get us out of this crisis.”
The United States, which has sought to unite the opposition, appears to be staying away from him. U.S. officials insist there have been no discussions with him. “The opposition views him suspiciously. He has no credibility. For us, he is really a nonplayer. We are not trying to maneuver anything with him,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal administration thinking.
After his defection, French officials are believed to have debriefed Tlass, who now resides in Paris. But the French government, as well, has said nothing publicly about any views they may have on a possible future role.
As Assad struggles to quash a rebellion that has now reached former regime bastions Damascus and Aleppo, the pace of defections has picked up to include army generals, several ambassadors, senior diplomats and members of parliament in the last few weeks.
But none of the defections have been as high profile – and damaging to the Assad’s regime – as Tlass’s jumping ship.
Tlass, who is in his 40s, is the son of former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, who was the most trusted lieutenant of Hafez Assad, the president’s father and predecessor.
The younger Tlass was a close, childhood friend of Bashar and his younger brother Maher, who commands the elite Fourth Division and the Republican Guards in charge of protecting the capital. Tlass eventually became a commander in the Republican Guards and was reportedly privy to some of the regime’s deepest secrets, one of only a handful of Sunnis holding power in a regime dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
A handsome man with tussled, salt-and-pepper hair, usually with a cigar between his fingers, Tlass led an extravagant lifestyle, and he and his wife, Tala, were fixtures on the social scene in Syria.
For critics, his defection is nothing more than an 11th hour attempt to jump off a sinking ship. But observers and former friends say he had a fallout with Assad in the early days of the uprising and had sidelined himself after failing to convince the president not to listen to his inner circle of security advisers, who were all recommending a harsh crackdown.
Tlass said he defected when he realized the regime could not be deterred from its single-minded pursuit of crushing the opposition.
For that, he has earned the respect of some factions within the opposition.
“He is not an opportunist. Manaf has excellent credentials and a vision for a political solution for Syria. We view him very positively and think he should have a role in the transition,” Michel Kilo, a veteran opposition figure and former political prisoner, said in a telephone interview from Paris.
But many others are suspicious.
Saudi-controlled media have lavished Tlass with praise. Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV showed footage of him in the holy Saudi city of Mecca wrapped in the white seamless clothes of a pilgrim. Razan Zaitouneh, a well-known opposition figure in Syria writing on her Facebook page, derided the images as a “cheap shot” meant to play up his Sunni credentials.
In his Ash-Sharq al-Awsat interview, Tlass said he was in Saudi Arabia to assess what kind of help the oil-rich nation could give to create a new Syria.
In Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hosted Tlass as the guest of honor at an iftar meal. But Tlass did not meet with the Syrian rebel groups largely based in the south of Turkey near the Syrian border.
“If he was genuine, why not come visit us and eat with us here so we can benefit from each other’s experiences?” said Saadeddine. “You cannot go from being an officer to a prime minister without passing through the street.”
Saadeddine said Tlass’ former complicity with the regime is not the problem. “Even if Maher Assad defects and comes to us, we have no problem with it as long as he is sincere,” he said.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based Syrian dissident, said that while Tlass could provide valuable information, the opposition on the ground will not accept him as a leader.
After so many months of “confrontations and sacrifice,” he said, “legitimate leaders of the transitional period can only rise from the ranks of the internal revolutionary movement.”