By Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT, July 5 (Reuters) - In what would be the most high-profile defection from the inner circle of the Syrian leadership, Manaf Tlas, a friend of President Bashar al-Assad and a brigadier in his Republican Guard, was reported on Wednesday to have fled to Turkey.
Tlas, whose father Mustapha was defence minister under Assad's father for 30 years, could not be reached for comment but several sources among the Syrian rebels told Reuters he had quit Damascus and a news website close to Assad's security services quoted a Syrian official saying Tlas was now in Turkey.
Tlas is a rare representative of the Sunni Muslim majority in a political elite and officer corps dominated by Assad's fellow Alawites, and his break with his friend may reflect an erosion of support for the president among wealthy Sunnis, slow to join an uprising driven by their poorer co-religionists.
The Syriasteps website which quoted a "high-level security source" confirming his flight also quoted a security official playing it down: "His desertion means nothing," he said. "If Syrian intelligence had wanted to arrest him it would have."
But a source in the exiled opposition to Assad, who said a relative of Tlas had confirmed his defection to him, said: "It's a very important defection. His brigade is very attached to their general, so we can say the true defection has started."
That source said Tlas had fled Damascus on Tuesday and was in Turkey en route for Paris, where Western and Middle Eastern sponsors of the rebel cause are meeting as the "Friends of Syria" on Friday. The French capital is also the home of Tlas's sister, widow of a billionaire Saudi arms dealer.
A witness in Damascus, who spoke anonymously for fear of the security services, said Tlas's house in the Syrian capital had been ransacked by security agents on Thursday: "They took away everything," the witness told Reuters.
Another opposition source said Tlas was expected to issue a video message soon announcing he was joining the opposition.
His departure alone is unlikely to affect greatly the capability of the Syrian army but will be seized upon by Assad's enemies in the West as well as at home.
A Western diplomat who knew Tlas in Damascus, where the general and his wife pursued a glamorous society lifestyle with interests in the arts, told Reuters: "Manaf does not give the impression that he is a thug. But he mattered in the military.
"His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating."
Tlas commanded a brigade of the Republican Guard, an elite, praetorian force commanded by Assad's feared brother Maher, one of the architects of a bloody crackdown on 16 months of dissent and rebellion in which more than 15,000 people have been killed.
Friends have said for some time that Tlas, who attended military college alongside the 46-year-old Syrian leader, had grown disillusioned with the crackdown, which hit particularly hard on his ancestral home town of Rastan, where many of his fellow Sunni Muslims have joined the rebel Free Syrian Army.
His father and a brother who is a prominent businessman had already left Syria since the uprising.
The first opposition source said: "He took this decision because since last year he has been in conflict with President Bashar al-Assad over the Syrian regime's decision to use a military solution against the Free Syrian Army.
"He's is furious about that. Because of this, he has been almost a prisoner at his home in Damascus. Assad reinforced security to stop him leaving," the source added.
Syrian troops pushed into the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun on Thursday, activists said. They said the security forces killed at least 11 people in an armoured assault from the south at dawn after a fierce bombardment.
"They are burning houses and farms," local activist Abu al-Ghaith al-Khani said, adding that 80 percent of residents had fled.
In a defiant interview with a Turkish newspaper, Assad blamed the revolt on Islamist militants from hostile Arab states and a Western plot to break up Syria or stoke civil war.
"The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected," he told Cumhuriyet daily. "The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this."
"Everybody was calculating that I would fall in a small amount of time. They all miscalculated," he said. "If I didn't have the people behind me ... I would have been overthrown. How come I'm still standing?"
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have promised to fund Syrian rebels and have long advocated arming them, despite Western misgivings about the wisdom of further militarising the conflict.
Russia, which condemns outside backing for Syrian insurgents whom it regards as dangerous Islamist militants, dismissed suggestions that it might grant Assad political asylum.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described such rumours as "an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia's position".
Moscow has backed a vaguely-worded proposal for a political transition in Syria, but denies this implies removing Assad.
Along with China, it has blocked U.N. Security Council action on Syria, anxious to give no pretext for a Libya-style military intervention - which the West denies contemplating.
A peace plan brokered in April by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan never took effect. The head of a 300-strong U.N. mission sent to monitor Annan's ceasefire said the observers must stay in Syria even though there was no truce and violence was reaching an "unprecedented level".
The mission should be restructured to help support political dialogue, said its leader, General Robert Mood.
Assad's forces have killed more than 15,000 people in 16 months of violence, Syrian dissidents and Western leaders say. Damascus says rebels have killed many soldiers and security men.
Syrian forces also shelled the shattered city of Homs and Harasta, a town near Damascus, activists said.
Human rights monitor Rami Abdelrahman said 97 Syrians had been killed on Wednesday, a now common scale of death.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said al Qaeda militants were crossing from Iraq into Syria to carry out "terrorist attacks" in support of anti-Assad rebels.
"Most of the suicide bombers, foreign fighters, elements of al Qaeda used to slip into Iraq from Syria. So they know the routes and the connections," Zebari said. "This is our main concern - about the spillover, about extremist groups taking root in neighbouring countries, to have a base."
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri has urged Sunni Muslim militants to join the fight against Assad, whose Shi'ite-rooted minority Alawite sect dominates the army and security forces.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said he believes al Qaeda was responsible for two suicide car bombs in Damascus in May that killed at least 55 people.
Tensions on Syria's northern border with Turkey have also soared since Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance F4 plane over the Mediterranean on June 22 in disputed circumstances.
Turkey said it had retrieved the two pilots' bodies from the jet's wreckage on the seabed and had flown them back to their base in Malatya for burial on Friday.
Turkey will join Western and Arab states in Paris on Friday for a third meeting of the "Friends of Syria" forum that includes countries opposed to Assad. Moscow and Beijing refuse to attend.
Apart from Russia and China, Assad can also call on the support of Iran.
"The Americans think only of their own interests, but it is the right of the nations in the region, including the great nation of Syria, to freely determine their own destiny, and other nations should not impose their own demands," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Thursday. (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Antakya, Sylvia Westall in Baghdad, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Jonathon Burch in Ankara, Gleb Bryanski in Moscow, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Stephen Brown in Berlin, Catherine Bremer in Paris and Marwan Makdisi in Damascus; Writing by Alistair Lyon and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff)
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS