Syria rebels suspicious over defector’s motives

BEIRUT — One of Syria’s most prominent defectors has been touring regional powers to seek support for the uprising, but many in the opposition are deeply suspicious of the handsome former general, a longtime friend of President Bashar Assad with a taste for expensive cigars.

They suspect he is just trying to vault to power.

The controversy over Gen. Manaf Tlass reflects the divisions among the forces seeking to topple the Syria regime and the difficulties they face in agreeing on leadership that can pose a credible alternative to Mr. Assad. Some rebel leaders worry that the countries supporting their fight are using their money and influence to steer the Syrian revolution and determine the country’s future.

Gen. Tlass was the first member of Mr. Assad’s inner circle to abandon the regime since the uprising began in March 2011. His defection in early July was hailed as a resounding triumph by the opposition.

This week, Prime Minister Riad Hijab joined the parade of defectors, the highest-ranking member of Mr. Assad’s government to do so. Two other Cabinet ministers and three military officers defected with him, according the Free Syrian Army.

To the international community — particularly Sunni power brokers Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — Gen. Tlass may appear the perfect figure to lead a transitional government.

As a secular Sunni Muslim with a military background and insider’s knowledge of the regime, Gen. Tlass would seem to hold credentials to play a bridge role if the regime falls by keeping the country’s military and security forces intact.

‘Syrian street’ will decide

However, his recent jet-setting and warm reception in Saudi Arabia and Turkey have fueled suspicions that he is ingratiating himself with regional powers propping him up for a major role. Saudi Arabia is a key financial backer of the rebellion, and Turkey is host to much of the opposition.

“It seems there are foreign and Arab countries who have plans for him, but the Syrian street will decide who it wants,” said Anwar Saadeddine, a brigadier general who, like Gen. Tlass, defected, but in May. Along with other for top officers, Gen. Saadeddine is helping direct the rebels from a camp along the border in Turkey.

All the major figures in the opposition, including political and military defectors, are trying to position themselves for a role in a future Syria, said Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

The longer Syria’s civil war drags on, the more activists on the scene will gain strength; and it will be harder for exile figures to carve themselves a slice of power.

“External actors, including former generals like Tlass, will have less maneuverability to inject themselves in these new political configurations,” Ms. Slim said.

U.S. also suspicious

Gen. Tlass denies any leadership ambitions.

“I did not leave Syria to lead a transitional period,” he said in an interview with the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. “But I will try to help as much as I can to unite all the honorable people inside and outside Syria to put together a road map to get us out of this crisis.”

The United States, which has sought to unite the opposition, appears to be staying away from him. U.S. officials insist there has been no discussion with him.

“The opposition views him suspiciously. He has no credibility. For us, he is really a non-player. We are not trying to maneuver anything with him,” said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal administration thinking.

After the defection, French officials are believed to have debriefed Gen. Tlass, who now resides in Paris.

As Mr. Assad struggled to quash a rebellion that has reached former regime bastions of Damascus and Aleppo, the pace of defections picked up last month to include army generals, several ambassadors, senior diplomats and members of parliament.

Gen. Tlass, who is in his 40s, is the son of former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, who was the most trusted lieutenant of Hafez Assad, the Syrian president’s father and predecessor.

Gen. Tlass was a close, childhood friend of Bashar and his younger brother Maher, who commands the elite 4th Division and the Republican Guards in charge of protecting the capital.

Gen. Tlass eventually became a commander in the Republican Guards and was reportedly privy to some of the regime’s deepest secrets, one of only a small number of Sunnis to hold power in a regime dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

A handsome man with salt-and-pepper hair and usually with a cigar between his fingers, Gen. Tlass led an extravagant lifestyle. He and his wife, Tala, were fixtures on the social scene in Syria.

‘Vision’ for Syria

For critics, his defection is nothing more than a desperate attempt to abandon the crumbling Assad regime.

Some observers and former friends say he disagreed with Mr. Assad in the early days of the uprising after failing to persuade the president to reject the advice of his inner circle of security advisers, who supported a harsh crackdown.

Gen. Tlass said he defected when he realized the regime could not be deterred from its single-minded pursuit of crushing the opposition.

For that, he has earned the respect of some factions within the opposition.

“He is not an opportunist. Manaf has excellent credentials and a vision for a political solution for Syria. We view him very positively and think he should have a role in the transition,” Michel Kilo, a veteran opposition figure and former political prisoner, said in a telephone interview from Paris.

Many others remain suspicious.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based Syrian dissident, said that Gen. Tlass could provide valuable information, but the rebels will not accept him as a leader.

After so many months of “confrontations and sacrifice,” he said, “legitimate leaders of the transitional period can only rise from the ranks of the internal revolutionary movement.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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