BEIRUT (AP) — A top general who has abandoned President Bashar Assad's regime was a longtime friend from Syria's most powerful Sunni family, and his break with the Alawite-dominated inner circle signals crumbling support from a privileged elite.
Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass was a commander in the powerful Republican Guard and the son of a former defense minister who was the most trusted lieutenant of Hafez Assad, the president's father and predecessor. His defection marks the highest profile departure in 16 months of bloodshed that activists say has killed more than 14,000 people.
"There are hundreds of diplomats, military commanders and civil servants who want out but are too scared. This may encourage them to follow suit," said Ayman Abdul-Nour, an exiled former member of Assad's ruling Baath party who knew Assad and Tlass personally.
The Tlass family hails from the central town of Rastan near Homs, a rebellious area that has been devastated by repeated government assaults since the uprising began in March 2011.
Old associates and analysts say Manaf Tlass supported negotiations with the opposition as the conflict worsened and became frustrated when he was overruled by the military leadership in favor of a brutal crackdown. Once inseparable, Bashar and Manaf reportedly had not spoken for the last three months — the unraveling of a family friendship that began when their fathers studied together at the Syrian military academy in Homs.
Hafez Assad and Mustafa Tlass became even closer after they were both posted in Cairo in the late 1950s when Egypt and Syria merged into the United Arab Republic — a union that lasted three years.
When Hafez rose to power following a bloodless coup in the early 1970s, Mustafa became defense minister, holding the post for 32 years until he retired in 2004. The white-haired Tlass helped engineer Bashar's succession to the presidency after Hafez died of a heart attack in 2000 and gave guidance to the young doctor turned leader.
In addition to his long military career and the many military decorations pinned to his chest, Tlass was known for his flagrant personality, off-the-cuff remarks and humor. In 1990, he castigated Yasser Arafat over concessions to Israel, calling the late Palestinian leader "the son of 60,000 whores" and comparing him to a stripper.
His son maintained a lower political profile but was just as ingrained in Assad's regime — one of a handful of Sunnis to hold power in the government dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Like their fathers, Bashar and Manaf were close friends and Manaf Tlass worked his way up through posts with the Baath party, eventually becoming commander of the Brigade 105 of the Republican Guard in charge of protecting the capital, Damascus, and the regime. Old associates say he was privy to some of the most sensitive and secretive files in Syria.