Manaf Tlass: The Defection Story
By: Nasser Charara
Published Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Nobody knows how Manaf Tlass, the son of former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass, got out of Damascus. It remains a mystery even for the Syrian security apparatus. The account that says he left through Turkey to Paris is not based on any hard evidence. Meanwhile, in the past days, there have been growing indications that he perhaps went to Lebanon and from there to Paris.
What is certain is that his wife and son stayed for several days in Beirut before Tlass left Damascus. At 4 PM of the same day that news of Tlass’ departure from Syria came out, a car driven by MH brought them to the airport and they traveled using their real names, Tala Kheir and Ahmad Manaf Tlass, to Paris.
It is now confirmed that Manaf Tlass is living with his father in France’s capital. Thus far, they have kept their distance from the media. Several days ago, Manaf began answering phone calls from his close friends. In Damascus, there are still reservations regarding labeling him a “traitor,” and it appears they are still betting that he will return to Syria or remain abroad without being too far from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Killing the Political Solution
Manaf Tlass’ defection was a half-surprise to friends privy to his thoughts and activities over the past months. When talking about the crisis, Tlass speaks of a “political solution” and a “military solution” to the crisis, consistently advocating the former. From the beginning of the unrest in Syria, he had announced a sort of rebellion—not against Assad—but against those within the President’s narrow inner circle and the security apparatus who are opposed to a political solution to the crisis due to personal interests.
In the early stages of the crisis, Tlass led attempts at reconciliation in the areas surrounding Damascus such as Douma, Daraya, Moademiyeh, and the like. He conducted direct dialogue with them as a representative of a good-will initiative by the regime. Dozens of times he personally went to families and tribes involved in the protests as a special delegate of Assad, in addition to being the son of General Mustafa Tlass and a native of Rastan which has produced hundreds of officers in the Syrian army.
He said that he had succeeded in establishing a truce on many occasions and was able to mend the break between the President and the inhabitants of a number of regions. He emphasized that the demands of the protesters were not outlandish and that the President had responded to all of them. But he added angrily in meetings with friends, “my mission was killed by members of the security apparatus and individuals surrounding the President who were determined to ruin the atmosphere of dialogue for the sake of a purely security solution.”
Sitting on the Sideline
Tlass responded to what he called an attempt to “thwart” his initiatives by members of the security apparatus by withdrawing from his military role on the ground. However, it is not true, as has been reported in the media, that he took off his military uniform and stayed in the house. For a long time, he would be found daily in his office in the Republican Palace and usually in the headquarters of Brigade 105 of the Republican Guard responsible for defending the capital.
Following the announcement of his retreat in protest of the violent approach to the crisis in Syria, he was welcoming friends to his home in Mazzeh, among them those who agree and disagree with his point of view. He would openly express his dissatisfaction with the violent crackdown on dissent, listing the names of a group of people in the security apparatus and the inner circle as those responsible for moving the country and the regime towards an impending disaster.
During his period of seclusion, Tlass remained in communication with his friend Bashar Assad, referring to him “the teacher ” as a sign of respect and deference. When talking to others, he maintained a tone of respect in reference to Assad. He said that they were still in touch and blamed those around him for the increasingly bloody outcome of the events in Syria saying, “I know him well, and he’s nothing like Saddam Hussein.”
After the crisis in Daraa became worse and spread to other regions, Manaf appeared frustrated at the success of those advocating repressive measures at imposing their agenda on the decision-making process. He said, “the issue cannot be solved with violence. The violence feeds the forces that wish to expand its spread.”
He was silent for a moment, then released the smoke of the cigar that barely ever leaves his fingers. He said, “This bit of information is not for publication. In the quiet town of Douma right now, there are 2,000 fighters gathered into brigades that call themselves the Abu Obeida al-Jarrah group, and every one of them receives an amount of $300 paid by the state of Qatar.” He advised with caution, “the solution is immediate attempts at dialogue with these regions before they erupt. Dialogue must be established between the regime and the people to meet their demands in order to dissuade them from providing a secure environment for the militants.”
As for his prospective role, he said, “I can play and intermediary role between the Sunni opposition in particular and President Assad.” Tlass assures that Assad had entrusted him with this role, but the efforts of those in favor of repressive solutions blocked him, leading to his withdrawal.
Tlass’ Account of Baba Amr Events
After the Baba Amr events, he became more isolated, but he was not cut off from Assad. The phone lines were still open between his home in Mazzeh and the Presidential headquarters.
In one meeting with friends, he commented that “a few militants were fighting in Baba Amr.” One of those present responded, “700 fighters.” He said, “that’s right, and it’s said that 200 of them were killed. But what happened to the others? They fled to Lebanon, and from there they will fight against us from across the border. But what is not known is that the Battle of Baba Amr ended after a deal was made requiring the army to give the fighters a way to pull out. This is what really happened, and then the battle ended. But I repeat. This is not a solution, and I warn that there are a thousand Baba Amrs in Syria.”
The Role of Western States
Many who visited Tlass and discussed the situation with him—even from a point of disagreement—noticed that he was insistent upon two ideas: his strong opposition to the mistake of using violence as a solution to the crisis, and his conviction that there is a foreign conspiracy against Syria, Assad and the role of Damascus in the region.
This spring, visitors noticed a transformation in his position as he leaned increasingly towards the latter in his interpretation of events. Here, he would rely on information from the Syrian president himself. One time he said, “It has become clear what the Obama administration wants from President Bashar Assad. They are demanding a promise to correct what they consider the strategic error he committed during the war in Lebanon in 2006, when he filled Hezbollah’s stores with various missiles, including anti-tank missiles. Washington told Assad recently that he must correct this mistake, or else the international pressure demanding his removal will increase in an unprecedented form.”
He adds that “this proposal did not consist of a promise to put an end to Washington’s support for the opposition or stopping international pressure on Syria should [Assad] do what they want. The proposition says do it, then we’ll see.”
The Military Council
At the beginning of this year, Tlass had information about the international proposition to solve the Syrian crisis supported by Moscow. He revealed to his visitors that “behind the scenes” the international situation was heading towards a solution to the crisis through the formation of a “mixed” military council (i.e. comprise of Alawi officers, Sunni officers, and maybe officers from the other sects) analogous to the military council formed in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
Those present said that his enthusiasm for this suggestion was a function of the fact that he would be sure to have an important role within this council; however, to Tlass, the makeup of the council was not completely clear. Only later it became clear that Western states did in fact work on a plan to produce a military council to oversee the transitional period in Syria.
The Moments Before his Departure
Most recently, Tlass had become haunted by the idea that an increase in violence and militarization of the conflict in Syria could lead to a division of the country. A few days before leaving Syria, he tried to communicate with a prominent political figure who is not Syrian but is close to Assad, asking for a meeting. He did not get a quick response, and in the end, the meeting did not take place.
After that, there was no sign of Tlass and his phone was no longer accepting calls, then a website close to the regime released the news that Tlass had left Syria.
His father General Mustafa Tlass was in Cyprus. He had been planning on moving to Damascus, but when he received news of his son’s departure in Nicosia, he changed his plans and went to Paris.
Since Manaf Tlass left Damascus, many in Syria have been asking whether or not his departure constitutes a true defection, but there is no clear answer. His wife, who was in Beirut a few days before her husband left, leaked to some of her friends that Tlass was thinking of going to Saudi Arabia, which had promised him that he would be the new president of Syria.
One of his friends visited him two weeks before his departure and says that he found him nervous. He became worried for him and said, “be careful, don’t let anyone convince you of any dangerous ideas,” but Tlass did not respond.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.