United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed the defection of top military officials in President Bashar Assad’s inner circle as the United States and its international allies seek global sanctions against his regime.
Western officials reported top Assad aide Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas’s defection Friday.
Clinton referred only to reports of Tlas’s departure but cited an “increasing stream of senior military defectors.” She told reporters that “regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet.”
She said it shows that “those with the closest knowledge of Assad’s actions and crimes are moving away. We think that’s a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime.”
“These defections send a message to Assad, but perhaps more importantly they send a message to those still left, which I hope they hear and heed,” she told reporters. “We have no doubt about the outcome here. We know that the Assad regime will fall. The question is how many more people will have to die before that happens. We want to see those on the inside hasten the day when a new transition can begin.”
Tlas is the son of the Assad regime’s former long-serving defense minister, Mustafa Tlas, who is also now in Paris. Manaf Tlas’s defection is the first from the president’s inner circle and was described by an Israeli analyst Thursday as the gravest blow yet to Assad’s regime.
A member of Syria’s opposition National Council, Hassem Hashimi, described Tlass as a powerful figure in the Assad regime. “The defection of Tlas will encourage a lot of similar people to defect as well,” he told The Associated Press in Paris.
Manaf Tlas and Bashar Assad have been friends since childhood, and the Tlas family, who are Sunni Muslims, have played a critical role in maintaining support for the Alawite Muslim Assads within the Syrian Sunni community. Brig.-Gen. Tlas was a battalion commander in Assad’s elite Republican Guard.
As the son of the longtime defense minister, Manaf Tlas was a member of the Syrian Baath Party aristocracy, part of a privileged class that flourished under the Assad dynasty.
His father and Assad’s father, Hafez, 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 when Egypt and Syria merged into the United Arab Republic — a union that lasted three years. After Hafez Assad rose to power in the early 1970s, Mustafa Tlas became defense minister and the Syrian president’s most trusted lieutenant.