Syria’s Manaf Tlass, a top general with close ties to President Bashar al-Assad, has been transformed from a “golden boy” of the Damascus regime into a member of a growing dissident movement with his defection.
The change comes after the regime brutally repressed dissent in his hometown of Rastan in Homs province of central Syria.
An attractive man of 48, Tlass is married to a woman from the Damascus upper middle class. An enthusiast of fancy cars, he smokes cigars and is a regular at fashionable cafes in Damascus. His favourite holiday spot is the French Riviera.
Born into Syria’s inner circle of power, Tlass’s father Mustafa was a close friend of Assad’s late father and predecessor, Hafez, who ruled the country for 30 years until his death.
Manaf became a close friend of Bassel, the dictator’s eldest son and heir apparent before he died in a 1994 car accident.
The two men embarked on a military career, just like their fathers had in the 1950s, after meeting at a military academy in Homs. The two joined the elite Republican Guard, the country’s top military force.
“Mustafa Tlass made a wise decision: he raised his eldest son Manaf to be an army man, and his second-eldest Firas to join the business sector,” Syria expert Fabrice Balanche told AFP.
Firas went on to “take charge of the company MAS, which supplies the Syrian army with food, clothing and medicine. It was a monopoly handed to the Tlass family by Hafez al-Assad because Mustafa was one of the regime’s Sunni guarantors,” he said.
Both members of the ruling Baath party, Hafez al-Assad and Mustafa Tlass were posted in Cairo from 1958 to 1961 for the duration of the United Arab Republic of Syria and Egypt, whose existence they both opposed.
When Assad took power in 1970, Tlass became defence minister.
The only difference between them was that Assad was an Alawite — an offshoot of Shiite Islam, accounting for 10 percent of the population. Tlass, on the other hand, is a Sunni Muslim, a member of Syria’s largest community.
Manaf was the eldest of a family of four children. A general in the Republican Guard, he was sidelined more than a year ago because he was deemed unreliable, according to a source close to the regime.
Tlass undertook several unsuccessful reconciliation missions between regime loyalists and rebels in Rastan and the southern province of Daraa.
Months later he gave up his military uniform and opted for civilian clothing. He set up residence in Damascus, where he let his beard and hair grow long.
Another source in Damascus told AFP that Tlass’s ties with the authorities became irreconcilable after the regime’s fierce assault on the Homs district of Baba Amr in February that cost hundreds of lives.
Tlass reportedly refused to lead the unit tasked with reclaiming the former rebel stronghold, and Assad subsequently told him to stay at home.
The source said Tlass was furious when Assad refused to promote him from brigadier general to divisional general or commander, when the yearly promotion list was published on July 1.
Sources close to Tlass say his family is now in Dubai, including his brother Firas. After the uprising against Bashar al-Assad broke out in March 2011, the businessman wrote a blog post supporting the uprising.
Tlass’s cousin Abdel Razzak defected from the military several months ago, and heads the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Farouk Battalion in Homs.
“The Tlasses were pampered by the regime because they were the guarantors of Sunni loyalty in central Syria,” Balanche said.
“But when they were no longer able to fulfil this role, there was no longer any cause to hold on to them, especially given that their predatory attitude was contributing to the explosive situation in Rastan.”