BEIRUT Syrian general Manaf Tlas, a friend and ally of President Bashar al-Assad who headed a unit of the elite Republican Guard, has fled Damascus and is on his way to Paris, a close family friend and the French government said on Friday.
"He left Syria and arrived yesterday in Turkey. He wants to come to France to join his family," the friend told Reuters by telephone from the French capital. He declined to give details of Tlas's flight from Syria, where witnesses said security officials had ransacked his home in Damascus on Thursday.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius later told a meeting in Paris of Syrian rebels and their international supporters that Tlas was indeed on his way to France. The former colonial power has been a refuge for many Syrian dissidents in the past.
Tlas, in his mid 40s, once enlivened the social scene in Damascus as well as serving as a brigadier-general in his friend's praetorian guard. His father Mustapha, defense minister under Assad's father for 30 years, now lives in Paris, as does Tlas's sister, widow of a wealthy Saudi arms dealer.
The family comes from Syria's Sunni Muslim religious majority, and Tlas's desertion from an inner circle dominated by Assad's fellow Alawites opens a first, ominous crack at the heart of ruling elite which has withstood lesser defections.
Friends have said Tlas was troubled by conscience. He may also believe, as Assad's enemies keep insisting in the face of stubborn resistance from well equipped government forces, that 42 years of rule by the Assad dynasty are coming to an end.
The revolt against Assad which began 16 months ago and has killed over 15,000 is led mainly by Sunnis. Tlas's break with his friend may be symptomatic of an erosion of support for the president among the Sunni business elite, who have been slow to endorse an uprising driven by their poorer co-religionists.
He leaves behind a country now deeply scarred by a virtual civil war, where Syrians in shattered towns not 10 miles from the capital are digging mass graves to bury those killed in shelling or by vengeful pro-Assad militiamen.
Fighting has reached an "unprecedented level" in recent weeks, according to the head of a United Nations monitoring mission in the country, General Robert Mood, and activists are recording death tolls averaging around 100 per day.
Army shelling and assaults on Friday morning killed three people in the southern province of Deraa, where the revolt began, near the Jordanian border. In the northeastern province of Deir Ezzor, activists reported fierce clashes in the town of Albu Kamal and a video showed farm fields ablaze.
END OF A FRIENDSHIP
Tlas commanded a brigade of the Republican Guard, an elite force headed by Assad's feared brother Maher, one of the architects of the bloody crackdown that began in March 2011.
His departure alone is unlikely to affect greatly the capability of the Syrian army, but it may encourage other senior Sunni officers to desert. Assad's enemies in the West as well as at home are likely to capitalize on the news.
The defection was expected to delight Assad opponents attending a ministerial meeting in Paris on Friday of the Western and Arab states known as the "Friends of Syria" that want to drive him from power.
If he threw his weight behind the opposition, Tlas - who attended military college with the 46-year-old Assad - would be the closest member of the inner circle to switch sides.
The Tlas family declined to comment but a news website close to Assad's security services, the Syriasteps, quoted a Syrian official on Thursday as saying Tlas was in Turkey.
"His desertion means nothing," it quoted him as saying. "If Syrian intelligence had wanted to arrest him it would have."
But a source in the exiled opposition called it "a very important defection", saying the 105th Brigade "is very attached to their general, so we can say the true defection has started".
A Western diplomat who knew Tlas in Damascus, where the general and his wife pursued a glamorous society lifestyle with interests in the arts, told Reuters: "His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating."
A witness in Damascus, who spoke anonymously for fear of the security services, said Tlas's house in the Syrian capital had been ransacked by security agents on Thursday: "They took away everything," the witness told Reuters.
Friends say Tlas was disillusioned with the crackdown, which hit his ancestral home town of Rastan especially hard. Many of his fellow Sunni Muslims have joined the rebel Free Syrian Army, saying the Tlas clan was dishonored by the association with the crackdown on dissent.
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul. Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Alastair Macdonald)