BEIRUT: Manaf Tlass, the top Syrian general and personal friend of President Bashar Assad, whose desertion from the regime Thursday was hailed as a coup for the opposition movement, had planned to leave Syria for months, friends and colleagues have told The Daily Star.
Nonetheless, his departure to Paris via Turkey was hasty, taking even his father, Mustapha Tlass, by surprise.
On hearing the news of his son’s desertion, the elder Tlass cut short a holiday in Cyprus, flying a private jet back to Paris to meet his son where he joined his sister, Nahed Ojjeh, according to family friends.
Tlass, the eldest of four children, was born into Syria’s upper echelons of power. His father was the most trusted friend of Assad’s late father and predecessor Hafez, and served as his defense minister for 30 years. The family were arguably the most important Sunni figures in Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime, but some claim the elder Tlass was among the “old guard” Baathist displeased with Assad’s power trajectory.
Tlass, 48, became a close friend of Bassel Assad, Hafez’s eldest son and heir apparent before he died in a 1994 car accident.
The two men embarked on a military career, just like their fathers had in the 1950s, after meeting at a military academy in Homs. They both joined the elite Republican Guard, the country’s top military force, where Tlass served as a general.
News of Tlass’ defection emerged Thursday afternoon.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced Friday that the general was en route to France.
According to family friends, Tlass had disapproved of Assad’s initial security response to mushrooming protests in the country from March 2011.
The turning point came when Assad’s forces launched a major offensive against Tlass’ native Rastan, 180 kilometers north Damascus, in May through to September 2011.
The offensive was “in complete disregard for the Tlass family weight and standing in Rastan,” according to one source, with close ties to the family.
“They were not even consulted, although Rastan had supported the regime since 1963, thanks to Mustapha Tlass,” said the source.
More galling, say friends, was the fact that Tlass was subsequently asked to mediate with demonstrators in Rastan and rebellious Douma, a hotbed of dissent 6 kilometers outside the capital that has come under siege by Assad’s forces in recent months. Tlass reportedly refused to shoot on protesters, leading to his grounding by Assad.
Handsome and sociable, and with a taste for expensive cars and good food, Tlass has reportedly spent the last six months as a civilian under effective house arrest.
“He still had his job, his house, his cars, but he was not going to work ... he was spending time jogging, swimming, playing sports, etc.,” said one friend who claimed to have visited Tlass in the last month.
“His defection was no surprise, but there was no indication whatsoever that he was going to do it,” the friend said.
His father had “no idea” according to another source citing a close friend of the Tlass family, but added that Tlass had been making preparations for some time.
“He had been looking for the best place to live, transferring funds, his dad’s museum collection, Imam Ali’s sword ... then the mukhabarat tightened the ropes and he [just] had it,” the source said, adding that he expected Tlass to “tell all” in a television interview in coming weeks.
It is understood Tlass’ wife, Tala Kheir, had also joined him in Paris.
“Both the father and son ... hated Assad but they knew there was no way to change,” said one former close family friend who said he had ceased contact with the family after the uprising began. “I heard news from May that he had been isolated. He was trying to get out for a long time.”
Despite claims by Free Syrian Army leadership that the group facilitated Tlass’ “defection,” it remains unclear whether he will join the revolutionary cause.
Tlass’ desertion follows a move by his younger brother, Firas, to Dubai earlier in the year. Firas heads the MAS company, which holds a monopoly on supplies to the Syrian army.
Firas Tlass has since posted Facebook messages in support of the uprising in Syria. Some opposition sources in Talbiseh, near Rastan, also said Firas offered money and supplies to rebel forces there, but said his allegiances were questioned.
“The whole family is rooted in the regime. Everybody knows that MAS is laundering money and paying the Shabbiha,” said one opposition source who declined to be identified, adding: “Firas was doing a double job.”
Another Tlass, cousin Abdul-Razzak, defected from the Syrian army close to a year ago. - with AFP