BEIRUT — A top Syrian general close to President Bashar Assad and his family has defected, dealing the embattled leader another blow, a source close to the regime said.
“Gen. Munaf Tlass defected three days ago,” the source close to the Syrian government said July 6 on condition of anonymity.
Tlass, the highest-ranking military officer to have abandoned the Assad regime, was on his way to Paris to join his wife and sister, Nahed Ojjeh, widow of Saudi millionaire arms dealer Akram Ojjeh, the source said.
France, which is hosting a meeting of about 100 countries from the so-called Friends of Syria group, confirmed the report.
“A senior official from the Syrian regime, a commander in the Republican Guard, has defected and is headed for Paris,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at a news conference in the French capital.
Tlass, who is in his late 40s, was a member of the inner circle of power in Syria, and a childhood friend of Bashar Assad.
A general in the elite Republican Guard charged with protecting the regime, he is the son of former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of Assad’s late father and predecessor, Hafez.
The official’s family is originally from the rebel-held town of Rastan, in the central province of Homs, which is currently besieged and being shelled by government forces.
Tlass was sidelined by the regime more than a year ago, after he was deemed unreliable.
His defection comes two weeks after a colonel in the privileged Syrian Air Force won political asylum after landing his MiG-21 fighter jet in neighboring Jordan.
According to the source with close ties to Damascus, Tlass had embarked on several unsuccessful reconciliation missions between regime loyalists and rebels in Rastan and the southern province of Daraa.
Months later he gave up his military uniform and opted for civilian clothing. He set up residence in Damascus, where he let his beard and hair grow long.
Another source in Damascus said that Tlass’ relations with the authorities became irreconcilable after the regime’s fierce assault on the Homs district of Baba Amr in February this year.
Tlass reportedly refused to lead the unit tasked with reclaiming the former rebel stronghold, and Assad subsequently told him to stay at home.
The source said Tlass was furious when Assad refused to promote him from the rank of brigadier general to divisional general or commander, when the yearly promotion list was published July 1.
Sources close to Tlass say his family is now in Dubai, including his brother Firas, who is a businessman. When the uprising against Assad’s regime broke out in March 2011, the businessman wrote a blog post in support of the uprising.
Tlass’ cousin Abdel Razzak defected from the military several months ago, and he heads the elite Free Syrian Army’s Farouk Battalion in Homs.
“If his defection is confirmed, it will be a painful blow to the Syrian regime and its inner circle, because he is close to the ruling family,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The United States on July 3 said that the growing number of defections showed that the support for the Assad regime was steadily crumbling.
“There have been, as you know, countless defections,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “We see this stream increasing, and we think it reflects not only the stress that Assad’s military is under, but increasingly his officers and his rank and file are voting with their feet against his regime.”
A U.S. official asking to remain anonymous said that high-level military defections were proof that people once loyal to the regime also had a role to play in a post-revolt Syria.
“When you can ... show those people that if they don’t have blood on their hands, if they haven’t been embezzlers, there is a place for them in the new Syria, that also increases the chance that you can peel them off Assad,” the official said. “And you’ve seen the number of high-placed military defections... starting to vote with their feet, vote with their planes.”
The Britain-based Observatory estimates that more than 16,500 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s rule erupted.