It has been reported by several sources, including one closely associated with the Assad regime (Arabic), that General Manaf Tlas has defected. This, according to the same Syrian website, “doesn’t mean anything”. This defection continues the steady bleeding of regime officials and soldiers into Turkey but, instead of not meaning anything, this defection has major implications for Syria and the civil war in the country.
The opposition in Syria is becoming increasingly militarized. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed in reaction to the brutal repression by the regime against the peaceful civilian protests. The FSA has recruited most of its man-power from Syrian army defectors. These defectors come from all ranks, up to brigadier, and come from many different combat units. Some come from the main regime props like the Republican Guard and intelligence units as well. There have been defections from entire small units as well as claims (unsubstantiated) that entire battalions have defected. Many of these defectors bring their own weapons, which is a drain on the regime resources as well as a bonus for the opposition. For a complete overview of the FSA see Jeffery White’s analysis at The Washington Institute. The regime also continues to face civilian protests which it meets with violence.
Internationally the regime continues to face international opprobrium, and the U.S., the E.U., and several Arab states are threatening even more sanctions against the regime. Syria has been protected internationally by both Russia and China, traditional Syrian allies since the Cold War. Turkey has become a rather implacable adversary, especially following the downing of a Turkish F4 by Syria. Turkey has declared that it will not go to war and doesn’t want any escalation but has also greatly increased its military presence along the Syrian border. Turkey is also hosting the Syrian National Council (SNC) and is widely believed to be providing some level of support to Syrian opposition groups, although the amount, and whether it includes weaponry, is unclear. Turkey has also encouraged the unity of the opposition under the SNC.
With defections, more or less, a daily event, why would the defection of one general be such an important indicator? The reason is that General Tlas is a Sunni Muslim and comes from the inner core of Assad supports. His father, Mustafa Tlas, was the longest serving Minister of Defense and the family was instrumental in assuring that Bashar succeeded his father by fast-tracking his promotion. Tlas’ importance can be seen in the fact that he was given command of an elite Republican Guard unit. Tlas also went through military training with Assad and the two have been described as friends.
Tlas and the regime have, however, been on shaky ground for several months. Since March 2011 Tlas was under a form of house arrest over his opposition to regime brutality. Tlas, a more moderate regime supporter, has wanted to negotiate with the opposition instead of violently repressing them. It is unclear what Tlas will do at this point. Possibly, although personally I think it unlikely given that his family is unaccounted for, Tlas will join the FSA or some other Syrian opposition organization. Due to his reputation within Syria this would be very damaging to the regime. Right now Tlas is on his way to France, and most likely, will remain there for the time being.
This defection is illustrative of several worrisome trends for the Syrian regime and the conflict in general. Tlas was a major, and popular, figure in the regime and his defection may undermine some of the remaining regime support. Tlas was the highest ranking Sunni member of the regime and his leaving increases the sectarian nature of the conflict, a very scary prospect especially with Lebanon next door. While Tlas has been sidle-lined for months, his actual defection is a signal that the Syrian conflict will not end in some negotiated settlement between the regime and the opposition as the U.N., and indeed even Russia, has called for. The conflict is likely to become increasingly sectarian and violent. Tlas’ defection is a strong indicator of these trends as well as the fact that the regime’s policy of violent repression is here to stay.
Update: General Tlas has just released a statement from Paris. He strongly condemns the Syrian regime and its violent repression of the Syrian people. He also declares that the opposition is legitimate. Apparently his family made it out with him which gives him more freedom of action now, although he says nothing about his intentions now that he is out of Syria.