By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and ALAN COWELL
Published: July 5, 2012
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Manaf Tlass, a general in Syria’s elite Republican Guards and a member of the Damascus aristocracy who grew up around President Bashar al-Assad, was reported to have defected on Thursday.
If confirmed, it would be the first such desertion from within the gilded circle around the president since the uprising against him began in March 2011, and the kind of embarrassing departure long anticipated to indicate that the regime’s cohesion was cracking.
“Manaf is one of the regime’s main figures,” said Bashar al-Heraki, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main political group in exile. Mr. Heraki, the head of the council’s military liaison committee, said General Tlass would soon publicly declare his defection, but he declined to confirm reports that the general was in Turkey.
“It is a negative sign for this regime, it has started to lose control,” Mr. Heraki said.
The director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group with contacts inside Syria, said at least three people within the country had confirmed that General Tlass had left, but it was not completely certain that he had defected. “If he does announce it, it will be the first real defection from the regime,” said the director, who goes by the pseudonym Rami Abdul-Rahman for reasons of personal safety.
General Tlass was the son of another general, Mustafa Tlass, who was a close confidant of President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president. Mustafa Tlass served as his defense minister from 1972 to 2004. As one of the regime’s most prominent Sunni Muslims, he helped disguise the fact that the elder Mr. Assad built an inner circle composed mostly of his own minority Alawite sect.
The elder Mr. Tlass was also said to have played a key role in the anointment of Bashar al-Assad as his father’s heir after his firstborn son, Basil, died at the wheel of his Mercedes.
At the official memorial service for Basil, the elder Mr. Tlass said from the podium that he could see the light of Basil’s eyes shining from Bashar’s. Bashar soon became the heir-apparent, ending his medical career and sent for military training where the elder Mr. Tlass quickly promoted him and where he became friends with Manaf.
In the second generation of the elite, families with two sons often divided their roles, with one going into business and the other joining the armed forces. It was true of Bashar’s first cousins, the Makloufs, and it was also true for the Tlass family.
Firas Tlass became a business tycoon, while Manaf, a handsome, charismatic figure, became an officer in the Republican Guards, one of the elite units that has been used repeatedly to try to crush the rebellion by force.
“He’s a close friend to Bashar,” said Mr. Heraki, “So it is not only a strong strike against the regime, but the strongest message yet to Bashar that he is no longer safe, and message to other officers thinking about defecting.”
Word of General Tlass’s reported defection came as the officer commanding United Nations monitors in Syria said that violence there had reached “unprecedented” levels, making it impossible for his unarmed observers to resume their work, which was suspended last month.
The suspension was one of the most severe blows to months of international efforts to negotiate a peace plan to forestall adescent into civil war.
At the time, the United Nations said the monitors would not be withdrawn but would be locked down inSyria’s most contested cities, unable to conduct patrols.
Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood of Norway, who commands the United Nations monitors, told reporters on Thursday that “the escalation of violence, allow me to say to an unprecedented level, obstructed our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue.”
It would be impossible to revive his mission without a cease-fire, General Mood said.
But, in the third installment of an interview which Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper has published this week, Mr. Assad showed no readiness to heed either cease-fire calls or a plan proposed by Kofi Annan, the special envoy on Syria, for a transitional government.
The series of excerpts from the interview, conducted last Sunday in Damascus, has provided a rare insight into Mr. Assad’s thinking both on his plight at home and on regional relationships, strained by the action of Syrian gunners who shot down a Turkish warplane over the Mediterranean last month.
Turkey’s military said in a statement on Thursday that the bodies of the two pilots, found a day earlier at the bottom of the eastern Mediterranean 8.6 nautical miles from Syria’s shoreline, were recovered and sent to the Turkish town of Malatya, home to their air base, where the doomed F-4 Phantom took off on its final mission June 22. A memorial service was planned there for Friday.
The military statement also included photographs of what were described as 31 pieces of their downed plane recovered in the search, which was aided by Robert Ballard, the American undersea explorer and his vessel, the Nautilus, perhaps best known for discovering the remains of the Titanic in 1985.
Turkey says Syria brought down the plane over international waters, but Syria says it was in Syrian airspace at the time.
In discussing the incident with Cumhuriyet, Mr. Assad also ranged over the broader issue of his survival through 16 months of uprising, his determination to put down the revolt and his insistence that he has the support of the bulk of Syrians.
“Everybody was calculating that I would fall in a small amount of time,” Mr. Assad told the newspaper. “They all miscalculated.”
His country, he said, was under attack by Islamist militants sponsored by Arab adversaries and faced the hostility of both the West and neighboring Turkey, a NATO member with whom Mr. Assad once had friendly relations.
“The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected,” Mr. Assad said. “The aim is to break up Syria or trigger a civil war. The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this. And we will defeat terror.”
“The overwhelming majority of the people think like me on this subject,” he said.