ANTAKYA, Turkey (Reuters) - He is a Republican Guard brigadier and son of Syria’s longest-serving defense minister. But most of all Manaf Tlas is a friend of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of his inner circle and a prominent figure in the Damascus “young guard”.
Or he was. Rebels and a news website with links to the Syrian security apparatus said on Thursday that Tlas had fled to Turkey. If confirmed, he would be the first real insider to defect from the embattled elite fighting off a revolt against the Assad clan.
Tlas has long been a rare Sunni name within a ruling clique dominated by Assad’s fellow Alawites; the flight of the family scion may reflect a growing sectarian divide and eroding support for the dynasty among richer Sunnis, who have been slow to join a revolt launched by poorer sections of the majority population.
A handsome man in his 40s with a beautiful wife, Tlas cut a dashing figure on the Damascus social scene, entertaining diplomats, artists and journalists and rooting for what he saw as reformist policies of his president friend.
But he grew increasingly disillusioned with the system that awarded his family rank and privilege.
His playboy father, Mustafa Tlas, attended military academy with Hafez al-Assad and remained his friend, confidant - and defense minister - through his three decades in power.
On Assad’s death in 2000, Mustafa Tlas helped arrange a smooth transition for his son Bashar; at the same Baath party congress which anointed the younger Assad, Tlas’s own son Manaf was elevated to the Central Committee of Syria’s ruling party.
The elder Tlas and another son have both left Syria since the revolt against Assad began last year. Mustafa Tlas left for France for what he described as medical treatment some months ago. Opposition sources say he is still there, though his whereabouts could not be independently confirmed. His son Firas, a business tycoon, left several months ago for Egypt.
Like their fathers, Manaf Tlas and Bashar al-Assad are old friends and underwent military training together. Tlas helped introduce his contemporary Bashar, 46, to the Sunni Damascus social scene when he was being groomed for power in the 1990s.
In the decade that followed, Tlas spoke of reform but defended its cautious, some said glacial, pace under Assad: “You need time. You need years,” he told the Washington Post in 2005. “There’s a generation you have to push forward.”
But the 2011 uprising rocked his cosy world. His father’s home town of Rastan, about 160 km (100 miles) north of Damascus, was among the first to rise up against Assad - and get hammered by the army for its defiance.
Peaceful demonstrations were silenced by the gun, prompting Rastan’s residents, many of whom served in the army and had the patronage of the Tlas family, to take up arms.
Tlas was privy to the inner working of the military crackdown by the core Alawite forces on the popular revolt. As a senior officer in the Republican Guard, he would have been in regular contact with that force’s commander, Bashar al-Assad’s feared younger brother Maher, an architect of repression.
He did not like what he saw, and tried to do something to ease the crackdown, his friends and opposition sources say. They credit him with intervening to negotiate local ceasefires.
”Manaf has been growing increasingly frustrated for months,“ one friend told Reuters. ”Being from Rastan, he felt increasing dishonor as his hometown was being leveled and hundreds of his relatives fell dead or injured.
“He started to tell people he trusted that he wanted out, and that he has respect among the Free Syrian Army,” the friend said, referring to the rebel force which many Sunni officers and soldiers from Rastan have joined.
A Western diplomat who served in Damascus said that Tlas, with his boyish good looks and fluent English and French, a taste for paintings and concerts, stood out among a Syrian officer corps drawn largely from the historically disadvantaged Alawite minority and often poorly educated.
He and his wife Tala went regularly for weekends to Paris, where his sister Nahed, widow of billionaire Saudi arms dealer Akram Ojjeh, is a prominent socialite.
“Manaf does not give the impression that he is a thug,” the diplomat said.
“But he mattered in the military. His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating.”
Others take a different view.
“If his defection is confirmed I do not think it will have any impact. The Tlas family has distanced itself for some time from what is happening,” said a Lebanese official close to the Damascus government.
“It will not change anything in the balance of power inside the country. They do not have any influence on the ground. They have made promises that they did not deliver,” he said.
“The main goal for this defection will be to cause a moral shock. The Americans will try to use it to the maximum.”
Syriasteps, the website with Syrian security links which reported Tlas’s defection, quoted a security official for Assad’s administration saying: “His desertion means nothing.”
Writing by Khaled Oweis and Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Alastair Macdonald