A Top Defector's Role in Syria After Al Assad

4 MINS READJul 31, 2012 | 10:59 GMT
A Top Defector's Role in Syria After Al Assad  Read more: A Top Defector's Role in Syria After Al Assad | Stratfor
Defected Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on July 26

Over the past several days, defected Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass has been tiptoeing into the media spotlight. Tlass has given a number of interviews and has met with senior officials in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, suggesting that Ankara, Riyadh, Washington and Paris are counting on the general to help steer Syria through the chaos that would follow the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Indeed, Tlass has the deep ties throughout Syria's military, security and intelligence apparatus that will likely prove to be necessary to help the country avoid institutional collapse.

However, Tlass' media offensive also highlights steep challenges inhibiting a future role for the general. Syria's fractured opposition views Tlass at best with suspicion due to the his family's historically close relationship with the al Assad clan, and a prominent role for Tlass in a future government would limit the level of regime change in the country. Still, even without a full endorsement from the Syrian opposition, Tlass is uniquely positioned to emerge as an important figure in Syria after al Assad.

Since the Tlass family relocated to Paris after publicizing their defection July 5, the general has engaged in careful, strategic rhetoric. In his first post-defection public statement, made July 17 in Paris, Tlass said he had taken a stand against the regime's harsh tactics. A week later, in interviews with Saudi state media, the general downplayed his personal ambitions for Syria's transition while leaving open the possibility of playing a role in a future government. If asked to help secure and stabilize Syria, Tlass said, he might "participate as an ordinary citizen, or as any individual who wants to resolve this crisis." 

Public Transformation

Tlass' cautious rhetoric is understandable. Despite his Sunni roots and his high-profile break from the ruling regime, Tlass has been rejected by large segments of the fractured opposition movement because of his family's long-standing alliance with the al Assad clan. Leaders from the exiled Syrian National Council have said repeatedly that recent defectors would not be qualified to lead a transitional government, which should instead consist of those who supported the opposition from the beginning of Syria's uprising. In response, Tlass has been describing in interviews the risks he took since the start of the uprising by distancing himself from the regime. His appearance in Saudi Arabia to perform the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca may have been designed to portray himself as a leader seeking redemption for the years he worked with the al Assad regime.

Tlass' public transformation faces steep challenges. Many Syrians are familiar with the deep bond between the Tlass and al Assad clans forged decades ago by the family patriarchs, Mustafa Tlass and Hafez al Assad, who is now deceased. Manaf and Bashar grew up together and remained close friends and allies once in power. As Stratfor discussed when the Tlass defection was announced, the orderly manner in which the Tlass family left Syria was peculiar. It did not strike a sudden blow to the regime. Instead, there were numerous indications that a deal had been struck between the two families, allowing Tlass family members to leave.

Such a deal would raise questions about what the al Assads might expect in return — and whether the Tlass family will keep whatever promises it made. The president is likely expecting Tlass to negotiate with the rebels' foreign backers to secure a safe exit. He probably also wants financial guarantees for the al Assad family and immunity from indictment by the International Criminal Court. The threat of extradition to The Hague on charges of war crimes can motivate beleaguered regimes to continue to fight even when facing long odds. Al Assad and his family may show interest in a negotiated political exit, but only if he can avoid the fate of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia. It remains to be seen whether Tlass or the regime's backers, such as Russia, can provide the guarantees al Assad seeks.

The Risk of Chaos

More critical questions surround the role Tlass would play in a post-al Assad government. The United States appears especially keen on avoiding the kind of backlash that resulted from its "debaathification campaign" in Iraq. In its attempts to form a coalition government in Baghdad following the successful U.S. invasion in 2003, the United States banned members of the ruling Baath party, fundamentally displacing Sunnis who had run the state machinery for decades. Iraqi Sunnis then turned to militancy to regain a governing role in the country.

A complete collapse of the al Assad regime and its Alawite-dominated institutions could produce a similar scenario — one in which experienced, Iran-backed Alawite insurgents seek to satisfy their demands by sparking a drawn-out civil conflict fought along sectarian lines. There are also fears that a post-al Assad Syria would be run by a severely fractured opposition made up of rebel fighters, political dissidents and Salafist jihadists — a situation similar to that taking place in nearby post-Gadhafi Libya. Given its deep sectarian divides, Syria offers a far more complicated situation than Libya.

Tlass may not be the ideal alternative, but he offers a Sunni face to the opposition and a family background with governing experience. The general could be critical to a new government's ability to command loyalty among the troops and thus maintain enough cohesion within the military, security and intelligence apparatus to prevent a complete breakdown of the state.

Notably, Tlass has spoken of the need to maintain the country's "social fabric" — a signal to the Alawites and other minorities that he is not motivated by a sectarian vendetta. Many of the rebels may have different ideas about a post-al Assad regime, but a preference for order over chaos by many Syrian citizens and foreign sponsors of the rebellion could prevail. Tlass may represent their best hope for imposing that kind of order, even if that means a lesser degree of regime change.

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