PARIS (Reuters) - Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, one of the most senior defectors from President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, said on Monday he was against any foreign intervention in Syria as it would not be able to bring down the government.
Tlas, who fled Syria in July to France, where his sister, widow of a billionaire Saudi arms dealer, resides, added that he had managed to escape Syria with the help of French special forces.
“I am against all foreign intervention in Syria ... it is up to the Syrian people to achieve their victory and they need to do that themselves,” Tlas said in an interview with France’s BFM-TV and BBC Arabic.
Western powers have said military action to secure safe zones in Syria was still an option, but they have shown little appetite for sending warplanes to Syria to protect safe havens or mount the kind of NATO bombing that helped Libyan rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi last year.
“For me the situation in Libya is nothing like Syria, it is much more complicated. I don’t see any foreign intervention being able to reach a solution,” said Tlas, a former friend of Assad.
Tlas said the Free Syrian Army would eventually be able to bring down the regime if it was given the “necessary material” to do so and warned that Assad could use chemical weapons if the government felt it had “its back against the wall.”
With a taste for lavish parties and expensive cigars, the 48-year-old Tlas strikes a contrast with veteran opposition leaders who have endured Syria’s notorious jails as political prisoners, and with a new generation of leaders honed by the grit of street demonstrations and armed resistance.
Tlas is considered a potential candidate to pave the way for a peaceful transition both inside and outside Syria, but many opposition activists say he is tainted by his long service to Assad. Tlas’ father was a long serving defense minister under Assad’s late father.
“My role is to unify and bring together our people. There are many groups working in our society whether the army, internally or externally,” he said in Arabic. “We need to create a compact chain to bring this regime down.”
Since his defection, Tlas has been hosted by Turkey’s foreign minister and given two interviews to media in Saudi Arabia, which suggested the two regional powers saw a role for the former pillar of the Syrian establishment.
Tlas, who is protected by five bodyguards and was interviewed by the BFM and BBC reporters at a secret Paris location, met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who is also the Kremlin’s special envoy for Middle East affairs, over the weekend, state-owned Voice of Russia radio reported without naming a source.
Russia and U.N. Security Council ally China have vetoed three Western-backed council resolutions aimed at increasing pressure on Assad. Moscow has refused to join calls for Assad to step down, saying his fate is up to the Syrian people alone.
In a statement announcing his defection, Tlas called for unifying efforts to build a new Syria while preserving its institutions - the kind of outcome Russia might welcome if it is forced to accept Assad’s exit.
The reported meeting with Tlas was another sign of “positional maneuvering” by Moscow as the fighting persists with little sign an end was in sight, said political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
He said Russia would continue to block efforts to impose sanctions on Assad’s government, indicating stalemate in the Security Council would continue, “but it will not give Assad any big, special help either”.
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Michael Roddy