If there was hope for reconciliation between opposition forces in Syria and the Bashar al-Assad regime, it is fading fast. Major General Manaf Tlas, ostensibly the one person who could have bridged the gap, has fled to Turkey, saying the regime is “taking the country to Hell.” Tlas is the highest-ranking military general to defect; there have been brigadier generals who have already defected but Tlas outranks them all. In addition, he is a Sunni Muslim, like the opposition forces, and was regarded as a man who could speak to both sides in the civil war.
The regime, unlike its Sunni Muslim opposition, is Alawi. Tlas and his family had been integral parts of the Syrian government for decades; his father Mustafa Tlas, was the Defense Minister under Bashar’s father Hafez al Assad and was instrumental in the transition to Bashar’s reign after the death of his father. Manaf came to power at the same time as Bashar; when Bashar was made secretary-general of the ruling Baath Party, Manaf became a member of the Party’s Central Committee and an officer in the Republican Guard.
General Tlas had made efforts at reconciliation with the opposition, meeting them in Douma, Daraya, Tal, and Homs and getting the regime’s permission to have prisoners released. But in May 2011, in Rastan, Tlas’s hometown, power and mobile networks were cut off so that the military could attack. Tlas contravened Assad, ordering the services to be restored and promising the protesters they could protest peacefully. When the protesters celebrated, chanting Tlas’s name, Assad had Tlas’s authority removed.
Opposition forces were delighted with the defection, holding up pictures that showed Bashar al Assad and Tlas together to show how close they had been and how grievous a blow to Assad the defection was.