Manaf Tlas, one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s closest friends and most trusted military colleagues, who is also the son of the Assad regime’s former long-serving defense minister, has defected from the Assad regime and fled to Turkey, in what one analyst described Thursday as the gravest blow yet to Assad’s regime.
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. Colonel Tlas was a battalion commander in Assad’s elite Republican Guard.
According to Israel’s Channel 2 news, Tlas’s father Mustafa, who was the Syrian army’s chief of staff from 1968-1972, and then served as minister of defense from 1972-2004, has also abandoned Bashar Assad, though more discreetly. “He had slipped quietly away to Paris,” said Channel 2’s Ehud Yaari, a respected Arab affairs analyst.
Many other members of the Tlas family hold senior positions up to and including the rank of general in the Syrian army, Yaari said, and it was hard to imagine that they would long continue in those positions now that Manaf Tlas had defected.
Manaf Tlas held failed talks with Syrian opposition leaders soon after anti-Assad unrest erupted in March of last year, the BBC reported at the time. Tlas was quoted then as saying that while Syria needed reform, Bashar Assad was the reformers’ best hope.
Manaf’s brother, Firas, is a billionaire businessman and part of the Sunni merchant class who have hitherto widely supported the Assad regime, Yaari noted. Now based in Dubai, Firas has lately been in contact with the Syrian opposition, Yaari said.
Yaari said Syrian state media briefly reported online on Manaf’s defection earlier Thursday, calling him a traitor, but then removed the item and had since issued no official comment.