Is the apparent defection of one of Bashar al-Assad's top generals (and close friend) the beginning of the end for the Syrian regime?
- By David W. LeschDavid W. Lesch is professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He is author or editor of 12 books, including the upcoming Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad and The Arab Spring: Change and Resistance in the Middle East. He also is the author of The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria and The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History.
When Syrian general Manaf Tlass fled his house in Damascus last week, becoming the highest-profile defector from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he sparked a flurry of questions about the course of Syria’s 16-month revolt. Does this mark the beginning of the end for Bashar, whose grip on power has been increasingly threatened by the uprising?
Press reports have described Tlass as a member of Assad’s "inner circle," but this overstates their relationship — his defection does not suggest that a fracture in the top ranks of the regime is imminent. However, his flight to Turkey is symbolically important: The Tlass family — a Sunni clan that emerged under Manaf’s father, former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, to become one of the most powerful in the country — is perhaps the second most recognizable family name in Syria, after Assad. And Tlass’s abandonment of his erstwhile patrons will no doubt affect the perspective of other Sunni businessmen, religious figures, and military men who are deciding where their loyalties lie.
The Tlass family is associated, perhaps more than any other in Syria, with the Assads’ rise. Mustafa Tlass played the role of kingmaker for both Hafez al-Assad and especially his son, Bashar, when they came to power in 1970 and 2000, respectively. With Hafez, he launched a long and productive relationship when both men were at the Homs Military Academy in the early 1950s, and later when they were stationed in Cairo during the ill-fated years of the United Arab Republic (1958-1961). Both were already members of the Baath Party, which had become a political force in Syria by the mid-1950s. When the Baath took power in 1963, the fortunes of the two friends rose higher. Assad promoted Mustafa to high-ranking positions in the military and the party, which Mustafa used to help secure the officer corps’ loyalty to Hafez — a crucial factor as the future president maneuvered through intra-Baath disputes to emerge as the country’s new leader. For his unwavering support, Tlass was appointed as defense minister in 1972, a position he held for 30 years.
As the most prominent Sunni in a leadership structure dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect, the elder Tlass helped Hafez establish important connections with certain sectors of Syria’s Sunni population, which comprises about 75 percent of the country. This generated important alliances with the Sunni business class and Sunni military officers, helping to ensure their loyalty to a minority-ruled regime and forging the military-mercantile complex that was the foundation of Assad’s rule. The Tlass family’s power and wealth, meanwhile, grew proportionately to its position in the ruling hierarchy.
Mustafa Tlass’s loyalty to Hafez al-Assad was never in question. And his devotion was most dramatically displayed when he sided with Hafez against the president’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad, who in the early 1980s attempted to push Hafez aside amid the tumult following the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s failed revolt, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the president’s ill health.
In a sign of the degree Hafez to which trusted Mustafa, the president relied heavily on him to help groom Bashar for the presidency after his brother, Basil, the putative heir, died in a car accident in 1994. Mustafa’s support was absolutely crucial to Bashar’s accession to the presidency upon his father’s death in 2000 because other members of the so-called old guard — such as Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam — also had their eyes on the prize. As one high-level Syrian official described it to me, very soon after news emerged of Hafez’s death, Tlass essentially gathered the generals together and steered them in favor of Bashar.
Loyalty was once again rewarded. Mustafa Tlass continued on as defense minister, and his son Manaf — among other members of the family, which was already perched high in Syria’s oligarchic society — immediately assumed a position of power as a presumed insider. But Mustafa did not serve Bashar for long: He was replaced as defense minister in 2002. Some said he was nudged aside by Bashar and the younger generation of Syrian leaders, while others said that, having seen Bashar and Manaf secure power, he resigned voluntarily. Either option is plausible.
With Mustafa retired from public life, it has largely fallen to Manaf to protect his family’s interests. Manaf, born in 1964 and therefore a year older than Bashar, has been variously described as "dashing," "handsome," and a (former) close friend of the Syrian president. A Syrian opposition figure told the New York Times that he was "one of the regime’s main figures," saying that his defection amounted to "the strongest message yet to Bashar that he is no longer safe."
That’s only part of the story: The sons of Syria’s elite families are as often good friends as they are bitter rivals. Manaf, although he attended military school with Bashar, was actually first friends with Basil, whose more charismatic and flamboyant personality better matched his own. Manaf quickly rose through the ranks, as expected, becoming a general in the Republican Guard, commanding an important armored division that protected Damascus — and the president.
Although Manaf’s image is that of someone more interested in his social activities than politics, I always found him to be serious and self-reflective. In my regular meetings with Bashar al-Assad — first for a book I wrote on him and later as a kind of unofficial liaison between Syria and the West — I had often requested interviews with leading military-security figures in the regime. Manaf was the only one I was formally allowed to meet, although I initially had met him through a mutual friend in Damascus. Bashar spoke fondly of Manaf, referring to him as a good friend on the couple of occasions the general’s name came up. The same was true when I spoke with Manaf about Bashar. But they are quite different personalities, so I am not sure their friendship went too far beyond familiarity and long-established ties between their respective families.
Manaf — and his wife Tala — also seemed to be particularly committed to religious diversity in Syria, one of the oft-mentioned public mandates of the avowedly secular state. One evening back in 2007, Manaf and Tala hosted a few colleagues from the Abraham Path Initiative (API) and me for dinner at a well-known Damascene restaurant. The API is a Harvard-sponsored tourism project that attempts to promote intercultural and interfaith dialogue by establishing a walking trail throughout the Middle East, retracing the legendary steps of Abraham, the shared prophet of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As a senior advisor to the API, I discussed this issue with President Assad, who quietly supported the project. Powerful elements in Syria, however, particularly the mukhabarat (security forces), began to vigorously oppose it. The public dinner was Manaf’s way of showing his strong support for the initiative despite the opposition it was encountering. Interfaith tolerance was something he really believed in, and wanted to see implemented in Syria.
Manaf’s stand on this issue may shed some light on his reasons for breaking his family’s decades-old ties with the Assads. As a Sunni and as someone who supported the ethos of diversity promoted by the state, Manaf most likely became quite disenchanted with the increasingly sectarian nature of the regime’s response to the uprising. In contrast to portrayals of him as part of the president’s "inner sanctum," he has been excluded from top decision making circles since the early stages of the uprising, when he reportedly wanted the regime to pursue negotiations with the opposition rather than initiate a harsh crackdown. The regime’s brutal response in Homs — including surrounding towns such as the Tlass family’s home of Rastan — may have been the last straw for Manaf and other members of the Tlass family. They broke with the regime silently at first (there were even reports that Manaf was under house arrest), and then publicly with the general’s defection.
The machinery of the Assad regime is not about to stop turning on the basis of Manaf’s defection. However, perception is often more important than reality. The fact that the Syrian family most often associated with propping up the Assads has jumped ship is significant in symbolic terms. Many Sunnis in the business and religious classes, as well as the military, have continued to support the regime primarily because there is no better alternative — but may now think twice about their decision. No doubt they are having some very serious discussions with each other and with their families — and maybe even with regime figures.
Manaf’s defection — though his current location remains a mystery — also reinforces the impression that the uprising and regime response have grown more sectarian as time passes and the violence escalates. Within the state itself, it appears that the decision-making process has also become more sectarian — that is, dominated by Alawites. As usually happens in a crisis situation, the inner circle has become ever smaller as the crisis has worn on — and Manaf was stuck on the outside looking in from early on in the uprising.
Nevertheless, we still may not have the full story for why Manaf’s relationship with the Assads reached a breaking point. Defections are often more complicated when one digs beneath the surface: Manaf’s departure could have been spurred by a clash of personalities, estrangement from Bashar, or perhaps anger at not being appointed defense minister like his father, or to some other high-level position. What is clear is that he believed his ship was sinking, whether or not he believes the regime’s is as well.
Manaf’s public statements have so far been limited, but pointed. He was quoted by the BBC as saying that Bashar was "taking the country to hell." If he were Bashar, he added, he "would have done an Ataturk or resigned the second month the uprising began."
This was not a bad prescription at all at the time. Bashar should have implemented wide-ranging reforms and socio-political change early in response to the uprising, like Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after World War I — or stepped aside. Both alternatives seem fanciful in retrospect, but either one might have saved Syria from so much death and destruction.
There remains only a slim chance, however, that Manaf and the rest of his family will ever again be in a position to exert political influence in Syria. Despite positive noises from some Syrian opposition leaders about Manaf’s future political role, I cannot believe that the hardcore opposition would want to have anything to do with a family that has been so identified with the Assads and the last 42 years of repression. Syrian opposition groups went through this experience once before, when Vice President Khaddam was forced out in 2005 and joined an anti-Assad coalition in exile. It was an utter disaster for the opposition — the presence of a longtime loyalist to Hafez al-Assad in their ranks discredited the movement. I don’t think they would want to travel down this road again, no matter how attractive a political and military figure Manaf may be.
A life in limbo may be what lies ahead for the Tlass family, even if Assad should fall. They might try to inch their way back into Syria economically and politically, as Rifaat al-Assad and Khaddam tried to do. Regardless of whether they are successful, it is an effort that will be undertaken from the comfort of their new environs, far from the country where they once wielded such extraordinary power.