PARIS – A top Syrian general's defection is the first major crack in the upper echelons of President Bashar Assad's regime, buoying a 100-nation conference Friday meant to intensify pressure for his removal, as well as an opposition desperate to bring him down but frustrated by diplomatic efforts.
All hoped the defection of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister who helped ease Assad into power, would have a snowball effect on his elite cohorts as Syrians count their dead — now more than 14,000.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Syrian leaders "are starting to vote with their feet" by abandoning the four-decade-old Assad dynasty, which continues to defy international efforts for peace. "Those with the closest knowledge of Assad's actions and crimes are moving away," she told reporters at the close of the conference.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was more blunt. Tlass' defection means that even the inner circle of Syria's ruler is starting to realize "that you cannot support a butcher like Mr. Bashar Assad," he declared.
The conference of the so-called "Friends of Syria" group brought together the U.S., its European and Arab partners, and the fractious Syrian opposition, all looking to turn up the heat to force Assad from power.
A series of commitments included providing means for the opposition on the ground to better communicate among themselves and with the outside world, and increasing humanitarian aid.
Participants vowed to find ways to ensure that sanctions are enforced and called on the U.N. Security Council to urgently adopt a resolution that would give force to a six-point plan by envoy Kofi Annan and endorse a transition plan adopted in Geneva — broad enough to get acceptance by Russia and China, which have blocked most action in the Security Council.
But the announcement of Tlass' defection upstaged the declarations. It was unclear where he was going. Fabius initially said he was headed to France, where his sister lives, then backtracked and said his destination was unknown. It was also not clear whether Tlass was actually joining the struggle against Assad — as was widely assumed.
The news bolstered hopes and helped allay frustrations among the varied opposition groups, many of whom want a concrete plan to oust Assad.
"The defection of Tlass, 16 months after the start of Syria's popular uprising, will encourage a lot of similar people to defect as well," Hassem Hashimi, a member of the Syrian National Council, predicted in an interview with The Associated Press in Paris.
The hope that it will inspire others to leave and open cracks in Assad's power base was one element that put opposition members on the same wave length as diplomats.
Tlass was a close friend and contemporary of Assad and, as the son of longtime Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, was a member of the Syrian Baath Party aristocracy, part of a privileged class that flourished under the Assad dynasty.
"I think it's a major blow to Assad to see somebody who's a close confidant defect at this point," said Abdel Basset Sida, head of the Syrian National Council. "This shows us that the very heart of the regime is starting to crumble."
Mustafa Tlass and Assad's father, Hafez Assad, had been close friends since their days in the Syrian military academy in Homs and became even closer after being posted to Cairo in the late 1950s. After Hafez Assad rose to power in the early 1970s, Mustafa Tlass became defense minister and the Syrian president's most trusted lieutenant as he created the repressive system that still controls the country.
When Hafez Assad died of a heart attack in 2000, the elder Tlass helped engineer Bashar Assad's succession to the presidency and guided the new leader, an inexperienced young doctor. Tlass was the leader of a coterie of old regime figures that critics blamed for reining in moves to liberalize the Syrian regime.
"These defections send a message to Assad, but perhaps more importantly they send a message to those still left, which I hope they hear and heed," Clinton told reporters. "We have no doubt about the outcome here. We know that the Assad regime will fall. The question is how many more people will have to die before that happens. We want to see those on the inside hasten the day when a new transition can begin."
The gathering in France's capital aimed to win wider support for a transition plan unveiled by Annan last week. Joined by America's allies, Clinton called for "real and immediate consequences for non-compliance, including sanctions," against the Assad regime.
But with neither Moscow nor Beijing in attendance, much remained dependent on persuading the two U.N. veto-wielding powers to force Assad into abiding by a cease-fire and the transition strategy. Ministers urged governments around the world to direct their pressure toward Russia and China.
Russia and China have twice blocked U.N. condemnations of Syria's government and just last weekend worked to water down Annan's transition plan.
The Kremlin rejected the anti-Assad call on Friday, with Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that Clinton's comments contradicted Annan's plan, which Washington and Moscow agreed to.
"There is no way of sitting on the side lines on this," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the meeting. "If you don't impose sanctions and implement them thoroughly you are allowing ... the Assad regime the means to go on killing the Syrian people and we see the tragic results every day."
He urged nations to immediately stop buying Syrian oil and end cooperation with companies tied to its oil industry.
Fabius, France's foreign minister, maintained that events were bearing down on Assad. Besides the defection, he noted a resolution voted Friday by the United Nations' top human rights body condemning the violence in Syria and demanding authorities cooperate with a U.N. investigation into "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights."
Approved by a 41-3 vote in the 47-nation Human Rights Council, the resolution also calls on Assad's regime to release all political prisoners and allow independent monitors to visit detention facilities.
At the Paris conference, Hashimi and other members of the Syrian opposition pressed for a no-fly zone, similar to that imposed on Libya last year, to prevent Assad's forces from "flying over defected soldiers and civilians and bombarding them."
There was no letup in violence Friday. At least 25 people were killed by Syrian forces who torched more than 100 homes while seizing the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun from rebels.
Catherine Gaschka in Paris, Robert H. Reid in Berlin and Ben Hubbard in Beirut contributed to this report.