The swashbuckling Manaf Tlas, a former brigadier-general in Bashar al-Assad’s Republican Guard, renowned for his love of wine, women and cigars, is being touted as a Syrian saviour who could unite the country’s opposition riven by factional fighting.
For months, the divisions between insiders and expatriates, militants and pacifists, Syrians and foreign elements have meant that no viable alternative to the Assad regime has been put forward.
Gen. Tlas, 48, a member of one of Syria’s wealthiest families and a one-time confidante of President al-Assad, popped up in France earlier this month and announced his defection from the regime he had strongly supported. His candidacy to lead the opposition has been as controversial as the man himself and was rejected Sunday by the leader of one of the principal opposition factions.
Gen. Tlas was that rare creature: a prominent Sunni Muslim in a country whose leadership is drawn largely from the minority Alawite sect that is followed by the al-Assad family.
It is said that you can tell which way Syria’s political wind is blowing by where the Tlas family stands. Gen. Tlas’s father, Mustafa, was hugely loyal to Hafez al-Assad, the current President’s father, serving as his defence minister for 30 years. But the Tlas family also served the French when they occupied the country following the First World War, and the Ottoman rulers before that.
In a statement last week to a Saudi newspaper announcing his defection, Gen. Tlas said his goal is “to try to help the best I can to unite the honourable people inside and outside Syria to set out a road map to get Syria out of this crisis.”
The offer was quickly embraced by France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and by the United States, which may have played a role in spiriting the general out of Syria.
The Wall Street Journal last week cited unnamed U.S. officials as saying they were discussing ways to place Gen. Tlas at “the centre of a political transition in the Arab state.”
“Gen. Tlas,” they reportedly said, “is one of the few figures in opposition to the regime who could potentially help restore order in Damascus and secure Syria’s vast chemical-weapons stockpile.”
Thanks, but no thanks, responded Syrian National Council president Abdelbasset Sida to the notion on Sunday. The SNC is the main opposition group outside Syria, backed by the United States and many Western powers. Mr. Sida said that while he welcomed the Tlas defection, the general could not be involved in organizing a transitional government, which he described as something the current opposition groups must do themselves.
And Mr. Sida ruled out any thought Gen. Tlas could head a transitional government. Such a leader “has to be a person who can lead a national government and who has been committed to the revolution since the beginning.”
The Tlas family hails from Rastan, an area near Homs between Damascus and Aleppo. Gen. Tlas’s mother is a member of a grand Aleppo family. Through their loyalty to the Assad family over the years, the Tlases grew increasingly wealthy. The general’s older brother, Firas, is a prominent businessman; one of his sisters married wealth in Lebanon, and the other is the widow of a rich Saudi arms dealer. She now lives in France.
Gen. Tlas was close to Bashar al-Assad’s older brother, Bassel, who had been heir to Syria’s presidency until he died in a late-night car crash in 1994. The future general then befriended Bashar, with whom he had attended military college, becoming a trusted adviser and introducing the young man to the Sunni merchant class.
Bassam Haddad, director of Middle East Studies at George Mason University in Virginia, recalls Gen. Tlas as being reform-minded, but fixated on his wealth. In an unexpected meeting to which he had been summoned by the general a few years ago, Dr. Haddad recalled that the general “asserted the importance of ‘gradualism’ in reform, a Hafez al-Assad mantra, one that suits the reformers’ timetable, not that of the purported beneficiaries.”
Born to “a world of plenty, privilege and power,” men such as Gen. Tlas “sought merely to forestall a marginal loss of authority and opulence,” Dr. Haddad wrote this past week. “The luxury of plenty intoxicated them, even blinded them to their long-term self-interest.”
To his credit, Gen. Tlas met early on in Syria’s 17-month uprising with members of the opposition to see if there was a way to avoid conflict. He got nowhere, but apparently earned the disdain of the President’s inner circle.
A former senior government official said the general only learned he had been relieved of command last summer when his own brigade had been sent north to launch an assault of a particularly rebellious town and he was not included in the orders. That town was Rastan.
Unable to move freely, there are reports that Gen. Tlas crossed secretly into northern Lebanon several weeks ago and was hidden by a Christian family. He was said to have been flown to Cyprus on a helicopter of a foreign embassy. His wife and son, already in Lebanon, joined him, and the family flew to France where the defection was revealed last week. There are reports his father had quietly slipped into Paris before his son.
Gen. Tlas appears to have the backing of former vice-president Abdulhalim Khaddam and Rifaat al-Assad, uncle of the President. The two members of the old guard also live in Paris.
Following the announcement of his defection, Gen. Tlas flew to Saudi Arabia, a major backer of the Syrian opposition, where he met officials and visited Mecca. Thursday night, he dined in Turkey with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, another champion of overthrowing the President.
The expectations and foreign support accorded Gen. Tlas bring to mind the inflated view the George W. Bush administration had for Ahmed Chalabi, a celebrated Shia expatriate who was pegged to take power in Baghdad and represent U.S. interests, but who turned out to have little support in Iraq.
“Tlas is not even respected in Syria by the army,” said the former senior Syrian official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, “because he owed his rank only to Bashar, who appointed him.”
“And he’s certainly not respected by observant Muslims,” he added. “He’s a womanizer and heavy drinker.”
“He’s definitely not the right person to unite Syrians.”