BEIRUT – A top general who has abandoned President Bashar Assad's regime was a longtime friend from Syria's most powerful Sunni family, and his break with the Alawite-dominated inner circle signals crumbling support from a privileged elite.
Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass was a commander in the powerful Republican Guard and the son of a former defense minister who was the most trusted lieutenant of Hafez Assad, the president's father and predecessor. His defection marks the highest profile departure in 16 months of bloodshed that activists say has killed more than 14,000 people.
"There are hundreds of diplomats, military commanders and civil servants who want out but are too scared. This may encourage them to follow suit," said Ayman Abdul-Nour, an exiled former member of Assad's ruling Baath party who knew Assad and Tlass personally.
The Tlass family hails from the central town of Rastan near Homs, a rebellious area that has been devastated by repeated government assaults since the uprising began in March 2011.
Old associates and analysts say Manaf Tlass supported negotiations with the opposition as the conflict worsened and became frustrated when he was overruled by the military leadership in favor of a brutal crackdown. Once inseparable, Bashar and Manaf reportedly had not spoken for the last three months — the unraveling of a family friendship that began when their fathers studied together at the Syrian military academy in Homs.
Hafez Assad and Mustafa Tlass became even closer after they were both posted in Cairo in the late 1950s when Egypt and Syria merged into the United Arab Republic — a union that lasted three years.
When Hafez rose to power following a bloodless coup in the early 1970s, Mustafa became defense minister, holding the post for 32 years until he retired in 2004. The white-haired Tlass helped engineer Bashar's succession to the presidency after Hafez died of a heart attack in 2000 and gave guidance to the young doctor turned leader.
In addition to his long military career and the many military decorations pinned to his chest, Tlass was known for his flagrant personality, off-the-cuff remarks and humor. In 1990, he castigated Yasser Arafat over concessions to Israel, calling the late Palestinian leader "the son of 60,000 whores" and comparing him to a stripper.
His son maintained a lower political profile but was just as ingrained in Assad's regime — one of a handful of Sunnis to hold power in the government dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Like their fathers, Bashar and Manaf were close friends and Manaf Tlass worked his way up through posts with the Baath party, eventually becoming commander of the Brigade 105 of the Republican Guard in charge of protecting the capital, Damascus, and the regime. Old associates say he was privy to some of the most sensitive and secretive files in Syria.
A handsome man in his mid-40s, Manaf led an extravagant lifestyle and he and his wife were fixtures on the social scene in Syria, where he often spoke on Assad's behalf.
"He likes to have fun, go to discos and drink whisky. Clearly, he couldn't cope with this bloodshed and was extremely frustrated about how things got out of hand," said Abdul-Nour, who has been living in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates since he defected from the Baath party in 2007.
Abdul-Nour and others say Tlass tried to mediate between the regime and the opposition in the beginning of the uprising. He traveled to Rastan and tried to arrange a cease-fire but his efforts were blocked by the military.
His hometown eventually fell into the hands of rebels and Tlass is said to have been enraged by the daily pounding of Rastan government forces seeking to regain control. Assad and Manaf had not spoken for the last three months, said Abdul-Nour, quoting knowledgeable friends back in Damascus.
Tlass is a cousin of Abdel Razzaq Tlass, leader of the Farouk Brigade in the Free Syrian Army in the central Homs province, who was often seen in videos with U.N. observers visiting Homs.
"Manaf supported a policy of negotiation, flexibility and compromise. He was overruled by the military leadership and has since looked for a way out," Syria analyst Joshua Landis wrote in his blog.
In recent months, Manaf Tlass was sidelined and confined largely to his home in Damascus, which activists say was ransacked after news of his defection. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
By leaving, Tlass joins his father, who left Syria several months ago for France ostensibly to seek medical treatment, and his brother, Firas, a businessman, who also left Syria and reportedly travels between the United Arab Emirates and France.
Syriasteps, a pro-government website with reported links to Syrian security, reported Tlass' defection Thursday night, quoting a security official who said that his "desertion means nothing."
But analysts believe it is a moral blow that will encourage more high-ranking defections.
"The Tlass defection sends the sign that the regime is done for. No longer is this uprising merely about angry young men in the countryside. It has reached to the very top," Syria analyst Joshua Landis wrote on his blog.