In what would be the most high-profile defection from the inner circle of the Syrian leadership, Manaf Tlas, a friend of President Bashar al-Assad and a brigadier-general in his Republican Guard, was reported to have fled to Turkey.
Gen. Tlas, whose father, Mustapha, was defence minister under Mr. al-Assad’s father for 30 years, could not be reached for comment but several sources among the Syrian rebels told Reuters Thursday he had quit Damascus and a news website close to Mr. al-Assad’s security services quoted a Syrian official as saying Gen. Tlas was now in Turkey.
Gen. Tlas is a rare representative of the Sunni Muslim majority in a political elite and officer corps dominated by Mr. al-Assad’s fellow Alawites, and, if confirmed, his break with his friend may reflect an erosion of support for the President among wealthy Sunnis, slow to join an uprising driven by their poorer co-religionists.
The Syriasteps website that quoted a “high-level security source” confirming Gen. Tlas’s flight also quoted a security official playing it down: “His desertion means nothing,” he said. “If Syrian intelligence had wanted to arrest him, it would have.”
But a source in the exiled opposition to Mr. al-Assad, who said a relative of Gen. Tlas had confirmed his defection to him, said: “It’s a very important defection. His brigade is very attached to their general, so we can say the true defection has started.”
That source said Gen. Tlas had fled Damascus on Tuesday and was in Turkey en route for Paris, where Western and Middle Eastern sponsors of the rebel cause are meeting as the “Friends of Syria” on Friday. The French capital is also the home of Gen. Tlas’s sister, widow of a billionaire Saudi arms dealer.
A witness in Damascus, who spoke anonymously for fear of the security services, said Gen. Tlas’s house in the Syrian capital had been ransacked by security agents on Thursday. “They took away everything,” the witness told Reuters.
Another opposition source said Gen. Tlas was expected to issue a video message soon announcing he was joining the opposition.
His departure alone is unlikely to greatly affect the capability of the Syrian army but will be seized upon by Mr. al-Assad’s enemies in the West as well as at home.
A Western diplomat who knew Gen. Tlas in Damascus, where the general and his wife pursued a glamorous society lifestyle with interests in the arts, told Reuters: “Manaf does not give the impression that he is a thug. But he mattered in the military.
“His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating.”
Gen. Tlas commanded a brigade of the Republican Guard, an elite, force commanded by Mr. al-Assad’s feared brother, Maher, one of the architects of a bloody crackdown on 16 months of dissent and rebellion in which more than 15,000 people have been killed.
Friends have said for some time that Gen. Tlas, who attended military college alongside the 46-year-old Syrian leader, had grown disillusioned with the crackdown, which hit particularly hard on his ancestral home town of Rastan, where many of his fellow Sunni Muslims have joined the rebel Free Syrian Army.
His father and a brother who is a prominent businessman had already left Syria since the uprising began.
The first opposition source said: “He took this decision because since last year he has been in conflict with President Bashar al-Assad over the Syrian regime’s decision to use a military solution against the Free Syrian Army.
“He’s is furious about that. Because of this, he has been almost a prisoner at his home in Damascus. Assad reinforced security to stop him leaving,” the source added.
In a defiant interview with a Turkish newspaper, Mr. al-Assad blamed the revolt on outsiders. Islamist militants from hostile Arab states and a Western plot to break up Syria or stoke civil war.
“The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected,” he told Cumhuriyet daily. “The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this.”
“Everybody was calculating that I would fall in a small amount of time. They all miscalculated,” he said. “If I didn’t have the people behind me … I would have been overthrown. How come I’m still standing?”