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Key Syrian Defection Heartens U.S.

The defection of a key Sunni backer of the Assad regime is a major blow to Syria’s ruling party, but it could also foreshadow the sectarian conflict to come.

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Inter Press Service

The defection this week of a key general with longstanding ties to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was hailed by officials in the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama as an important step towards ending the regime.

Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, the son of former defence minister Mustafa Tlas, was reportedly smuggled by opposition activists to Turkey and may be en route to Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters during a high-level meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group in the French capital. Fabius later stated that he had no indication of Tlas’s final destination.

“We welcome this defection and we believe it is significant,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who took part in the Paris meeting, also praised Tlas’s defection and predicted that more would follow.

“(I)t is important that there is this increasing stream of senior military defectors,” she told reporters after the meeting in reference to Tlas’s defection. “Because if people like him, and like the generals and colonels and others who have recently defected to Turkey are any indication, regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet.

 “Those who have the closest knowledge of Assad’s actions and crimes are moving away, and we think that’s a very promising development,” she added.

Independent analysts here, including some who have long expressed scepticism over administration claims of the regime’s vulnerability, largely echoed that view, agreeing that Tlas’s departure has struck a major blow to the regime, which has relied for some 40 years on unity between the Alawite minority, of which the Assads are a part, and the Sunni military and business elite.

“The Tlas family is the keystone of the Alawite-Sunni alliance that’s been the bedrock of the regime from the beginning,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told IPS Friday. “There is no bigger Sunni family in this regime, and here is the cornerstone of that family defecting. It’s a body blow to the regime.”

“This is not the ‘tipping point’, but it is very significant for morale. It sends a message: This is Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, and it’s over,” according to Landis, whose blog, SyriaComment.com, is widely read among those who follow developments there.

He predicts that the process of high-level defections is inevitable, but is “going to be slow” due to regime restrictions and surveillance of other members of the Sunni elite.

“(E)ven if he’s not the kind of figurehead Washington can optimally support, Tlas can serve a useful purpose,” according to David Schenker, who advised the Pentagon under President George W. Bush on Middle East affairs and is now based at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy (WINEP).

“Tlas appears to have residual appeal with some Sunni Muslims, and it is possible his departure could embolden fellow Sunni soldiers and even prompt a mass exodus from Assad’s military,” he added, noting that some 84 soldiers, including a general and 14 officers, crossed into Turkey shortly before Tlas.

News of the defection comes amidst the continuing deterioration of the Syrian conflict, which has claimed upwards of 10,000 lives in the past 16 months. The Syrian government has steadily lost the backing of former supporters, notably Turkey, as it has failed to curb violence across the state.

While members of the opposition met in Cairo in the latest of a series of vain efforts to unify its diverging – and often quarrelsome – factions, the U.S. and Russia continued to butt heads over the terms of any transition that would be authorised by the U.N. Security Council. Russia has insisted that Assad and his cohorts be allowed to participate in a transitional government, which the U.S.- and Arab League-backed opposition has rejected outright.

Though reports have emerged of CIA involvement with Syrian rebels groups operating in Turkey, the Barack Obama administration has thus far refrained from the deeper military intervention favoured by the Turkey-based Free Syrian Army, the Syrian National Council, and some U.S. lawmakers, such as Republican Sen. John McCain, and independent Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman, as well as neo-conservative and liberal interventionist pundits and commentators.

Among other measures, they have called for arming the opposition and establishing no-fly zones where opposition activists and civilians can gather in safety.

These hawks have argued that a protracted and increasingly sectarian civil war in Syria could strengthen radical Islamist forces there and that Washington should take a more activist role in the conflict to steer the opposition in a more “moderate” and pro-Western direction.

(For a critique of arguments promoting outside military involvement in the Syrian conflict, see Samer Araabi, “The Militarization of the Syrian Uprising,” Right Web, April 18, 2012.)

The Tlas defection may very well bolster the administration’s position by demonstrating that its efforts to isolate and pressure the regime may be creating the internal fissures needed to bring about its downfall.

Manaf Tlas, a childhood friend of Bashar Al-Assad, is a member of one of the most powerful Sunni families in Syria and served as the commander of the feared Republican Guard. His father, Mustafa Tlas, was a key ally and confidante of Bashar’s father Hafez, and a mainstay of Syria’s Ba’ath regime. Mustafa and Manaf’s brother Firas, a wealthy businessman with former ties to the regime, both left the country last year.

In a declaration purportedly released by Tlas, the former commander stated he had been “progressively dismissed” from his military responsibilities due to his “complete opposition with the unjustified violence and crimes committed by Assad’s regime in the past months” and that he “recognise(d) the legitimacy of the fight of the opposition members to the regime, particularly the ones on the ground.”

He added that he intended to make a statement about his “motives and the possibilities that the future offers me.”

Based on the failure of other prominent regime figures to garner the opposition’s acceptance, let alone backing, Landis said he was sceptical that Tlas can successfully emerge as a new leader.

“They’ve been shunned because they’re considered persona non grata, with blood on their hands,” he said.

Both Landis and Schenker also worry that Tlas’s defection may cause other, unintended problems for the country by signaling its descent into a sectarian civil war.

“We’ve known for some time that this is turning into a sectarian brawl of Alawites and Sunnis,” said Landis. “This defection means that the battle lines along religious communal lines are being drawn up right up to the top of the regime. That’s what has to be very scary.”

“Should Sunnis leave the military and join the opposition wholesale,” warned Schenker in the New York Daily News, “it could reinforce the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict. Such a trend could, after Assad’s departure, trigger reprisals against the Alawites and communities – like Christians – perceived to have been supporting the regime.”

Alawites constitute approximately 11 percent of the population, and Christians make up an additional 10 percent.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web. He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/. Samer Araabi is a contributor to Right Web and Inter Press Service.

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