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Jul 6, 2012 | 15:27 GMT

A Critical Defection in Syria

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Summary

Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, whose defection was announced by Syrian opposition media July 5, is believed to be traveling from Turkey to Paris on July 6 to attend a Friends of Syria meeting. Tlass commanded the 105th Republican Guard unit until February or March 2012, when his unit struggled to put down the rebellion in Homs. In addition to Manaf, several other members of the Tlass family reportedly have left Syria.

The Tlass family has long been an important supporter of the al Assads, but the sectarian differences between the two families eventually pulled the alliance apart. The Tlass family was not only critical to the al Assad clan's ability to maintain military support among the Sunni elite, but it was also a major link between the Alawites and the Sunni business community. The Tlass family's defections may now provide an incentive to Syria's Sunni merchant class to defect in large numbers, thereby unraveling the patronage networks that the regime has relied on for decades.

There are indications that Tlass fell from grace with the al Assad regime as far back as December 2011, when he voiced his opposition to the regime's crackdown to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who was once his close friend and confidant. Tlass reportedly will be joining his wife, Tala, and his sister, Nahid Aija (who is reportedly the widow of a billionaire Saudi arms dealer), in Paris.

Manaf is not the only significant member of the Tlass family who has defected. One of his cousins, Abdul Razzaq Tlass, has reportedly been leading the Farouq Battalion of the rebel Free Syrian Army. He was wounded when the Syrian army shelled Homs in February (which may explain why Manaf at that time refused to carry out orders when his unit was deployed to pacify Homs). Manaf's brother, Firas, a businessman, left Syria several months ago to signal his protest to the crackdown and is now living in Dubai.

Most critically, Mustafa Tlass, the patriarch of the Tlass family, also appears to have severed his ties with the al Assads. Mustafa was the Sunni pillar of the predominantly Alawite al Assad regime. He served as defense minister for the al Assad regime from 1972 to 2004 and played an instrumental role in ensuring that the young Bashar al Assad would have the support of the old guard in succeeding his father, Hafez al Assad. When Hafez was on his deathbed in 2000, Mustafa Tlass is believed to have pledged to protect the al Assad family and the regime.

Though Mustafa Tlass is a regime figure with a lot of blood on his hands and will likely be rejected by some segments of the Syrian opposition, Manaf has the potential to become the new face of the regime. Western media's reporting on Manaf is already framing him as a pragmatic leader in line with Western values due to his opposition to the crackdown. Given that Manaf's cousin Abdul Razzaq already carries a great deal of credibility with the Free Syrian Army, Manaf also may be a more palatable candidate to the Syrian political opposition and rebels.

Meanwhile, Syrian pro-government media is trying to downplay the significance of Manaf's defection. Tartous Today wrote, "Syrian intelligence would have captured him if they wanted to," adding that his defection would "not affect us at all, but he will instead become a new burden on the hands of the garbage and traitors nesting in Turkey." Syria Steps quoted security officials as saying, "The situation on the ground is under control. There is nothing that will stop us from eliminating the terrorists in the country."

But what is odd about Manaf's defection is how quietly it took place. The Tlass family members had quietly distanced themselves from the al Assad regime months ago, yet there have been no signs of major purges in the government and security apparatus, which one would expect after the loss of several key figures of the regime. Stratfor has received unconfirmed information that al Assad personally instructed his security apparatus to see to it that Mustafa left Syria safely. And if Manaf's defection was made with the knowledge of the al Assad regime, it would suggest that the Tlass and al Assad families struck a deal to allow both to part ways peacefully. Such a deal would likely entail the Tlass family's pledging not to take further action against the regime in exchange for being allowed to leave unharmed. However, Manaf is a prime candidate for the West to promote as a replacement to the al Assad regime, and the Tlass family is a veritable vault of intelligence on the inner workings of the regime.

So far, key Alawite inner-circle members, such as the Makhlouf family, appear to be sticking with the regime. These families are critical to the regime's efforts to maintain minority support outside of the al Assad clan. However, the Tlass family's defection marks the regime's loss of key Sunni elite support and potential loss of the Sunni merchant class. Though the Tlass family quietly distanced itself from the al Assad family some months ago, the public defection will likely have a significant psychological effect on those Sunnis and perhaps even some minorities who have been waiting to see which side of the revolt will prevail. More defections, spreading from the military to the business class, will likely follow. It remains to be seen whether the Tlass and Makhlouf families will join in a campaign to remove the al Assad clan from power. A palace coup scenario to break the al Assad regime now has a much higher probability than before.

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