General Manaf Tlass, a close associate of Bashar Assad, has defected and is en route to France, confirmed Laurent Fabius, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the opening of the Friends of Syria Conference of in Paris on Friday. "General Tlass is in Turkey, but he is yet to contact the opposition," said Bourhan Ghalioun, the former leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition body against Bashar Assad. "We expect to contact him to see if he is joining the opposition," he said.
The departure of Manaf Tlass, number three of the Republican Guard, is the first defection of a senior Syrian military leader since the beginning of the revolt against the Assad regime 16 months ago. Son of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, Manaf Tlass was a childhood friend of the Syrian President.
But he disagreed with the bloody crackdown against opponents over the past year and a half. The Sunni General Tlass has reportedly pleaded for a political solution to the crisis with Assad, but without success. Instead, the Syrian leadership had advised him to "stay home" for many months.
His departure is a strong blow to the regime and could encourage other defections in the inner circle of the Syrian president to defect.