A GENERAL in the elite Syrian Republican Guards is said to have defected to Turkey, in the first such reported loss of a high-ranking military supporter of president Bashar al-Assad since the rebellion against him started 16 months ago.
“A high-level security source has confirmed the fleeing of General [Manaf] Tlas to Turkey,” the Syriasteps website, which has links to the Syrian security apparatus, said last night.
In what seems to be an effort by the government to get its domestic media retaliation in first, it quoted a security official as saying: “His escape does not mean anything. If Syrian intelligence had wanted to arrest him, it would have done so.”
Syrian opposition campaigners and Free Syrian Army rebel sources said they had information that Gen Tlas was in Turkey, but they would not consider him a defector until he made an announcement. “We think he has made it to Turkey, but he has not contacted us. There is a difference between leaving Syria and joining the opposition to Assad,” a Syrian opposition source said from Istanbul.
Gen Tlas, a member of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and a former close friend of Mr Assad, commanded a brigade in the Republican Guards, one of the best equipped units in the military, which is dominated by members of the president’s Alawite sect.
The Alawites, a Shiite offshoot, control the power structure in the country of 21 million people.
The general’s father, Mustafa Tlas, served as defence minister from the early 1970s until 2004 and was a confidant of Mr Assad’s father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
Meanwhile, Russia has dismissed suggestions it was planning to offer political asylum to Mr Assad and said two prominent opposition leaders were going to Moscow for talks next week.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said: “It [the rumour of Russia granting asylum to Mr Assad] is either an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia’s position.”
Russia, along with China, has shielded Assad from western-sponsored UN action beyond verbal condemnation of the violence – a stance Mr Assad’s foes say gives him a free hand to pursue his crackdown on protesters.
Last week, Russia also watered down an international agreement brokered by UN mediator Kofi Annan in Geneva. The deal envisaged creating a transitional governing body in Syria to end the bloodshed but left open what part Mr Assad might play.
Russia has repeatedly said Syrians themselves must determine the fate of their country without any foreign meddling and that all sides in the conflict should engage in dialogue.
On the ground yesterday, Syrian troops pushed into the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, activists said. They claimed the forces had killed at least 11 people as they entered the town in an armoured assault at dawn after a fierce bombardment. “They are burning houses and farms,” local activist Abu al-Ghaith al-Khani said, adding that 80 per cent of residents had fled.
Meanwhile, Mr Assad told a Turkish newspaper he would have been toppled like the shah of Iran if his people had not been behind him.
The Syrian leader blamed the revolt on Islamist militants from hostile Arab countries and an alleged western plot to break up his country or plunge it into civil war.