General's defection shows Assad regime 'crumbling'

World leaders step up pressure on Russia and China to take a tougher line with Syria

Western nations took comfort yesterday from the defection of a top figure in the Damascus regime as they piled new pressure on the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad.

The flight of Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, the son of a former defence minister, was interpreted by world leaders meeting in Paris as a sign of increasing instability in the Syrian regime. Bolstered by the defection, the more than 100 nations attending the third "Friends of Syria" conference called for tougher economic sanctions if Damascus failed to implement the peace plan devised by the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said that there should be "real and immediate consequences for non-compliance" which would hurt senior members of the Assad regime. She called on the international community to put renewed pressure on Russia and China, which continue to support the Damascus regime. "I ask you [the assembled countries] to reach out to Russia and China, and… demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," she said.

The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said the high-profile defection was a clear sign that the Assad regime was "unsustainable". He initially indicated that General Tlass was on his way to France to join his sister but later said that Paris was not sure of the general's movements.

Sources in the region were more dubious about the significance of the departure of General Tlass, the most senior deserter since the Assad regime began its brutal repression of dissent 16 months ago.

"He's been under house arrest and under high surveillance. He has been out of duty for some months. Maybe they simply don't care that he's gone, but one thing is for sure, it won't have taken them by surprise," said a Syrian source with knowledge of the government's inner workings. However, Syrian opposition leaders at the conference were delighted with the news of the general's departure.

Hassem Hashimi of the Syrian National Council said: "The defection of Tlass will encourage a lot of similar people to defect as well."

They were less pleased with the results of the conference itself. Several said that they had hoped for progress towards an internationally enforced no-fly zone in the north of the country, which would allow civilians and rebel fighters to shelter from attacks. Burhan Ghalioun, a former leader of the Syrian National Council, said: "I am not satisfied at all because the Syrians are not waiting for press communiques."

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, repeated earlier warnings. "We don't rule out any option for the future because it is deteriorating," he said.

General Tlass is said to have been uncomfortable with the regime's handling of the crisis, his dissatisfaction growing since the army offensive in his home town of Rastan, in Homs. Despite being a childhood friend of Assad, he is reported to have been placed under house arrest several weeks ago. Sources say that it unlikely he possesses much operational information that could be used by the opposition.

Defector 'was very unhappy with goings-on'

Brigadier General Tlass is almost certain to head for France, according to a British friend of his wife. "His sister is a very wealthy widow who lives in France," the friend said. "Manaf Tlass was a close friend of Bashar al-Assad's brother, Bassel, before his death [in 1994]... His departure will undoubtedly encourage others."

The friend added: "It doesn't surprise me. He was known to be very unhappy with what was going on. He and Tala [his wife] are charming and very good people... They have two children. She set up and ran a well-known school in Damascus."

Profile: Manaf Tlass

Known for his charm and good looks, the Brigadier General is said to have helped Bashar al-Assad get acquainted with the Damascus social scene and was given seat on Baath Party's central committee. However, relations between his family and the regime became rocky during the uprising. A prominent member of the Tlass clan defected in June last year and led the rebels during the siege on Baba Amr.

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