PARIS — A top Syrian general's defection is the first major crack in the upper echelons of President Bashar Assad's regime, buoying a 100-nation conference Friday meant to intensify pressure for his removal, as well as an opposition desperate to bring him down but frustrated by diplomatic efforts.
All hoped the defection of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister who helped ease Assad into power, would have a snowball effect on his elite cohorts as Syrians count their dead – now more than 14,000.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Syrian leaders "are starting to vote with their feet" by abandoning the four-decade-old Assad dynasty, which continues to defy international efforts for peace. "Those with the closest knowledge of Assad's actions and crimes are moving away," she told reporters at the close of the conference.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was more blunt. Tlass' defection means that even the inner circle of Syria's ruler is starting to realize "that you cannot support a butcher like Mr. Bashar Assad," he declared.
The conference of the so-called "Friends of Syria" group brought together the U.S., its European and Arab partners, and the fractious Syrian opposition, all looking to turn up the heat to force Assad from power.
A series of commitments included providing means for the opposition on the ground to better communicate among themselves and with the outside world, and increasing humanitarian aid.
Participants vowed to find ways to ensure that sanctions are enforced and called on the U.N. Security Council to urgently adopt a resolution that would give force to a six-point plan by envoy Kofi Annan and endorse a transition plan adopted in Geneva – broad enough to get acceptance by Russia and China, which have blocked most action in the Security Council.
But the announcement of Tlass' defection upstaged the declarations. It was unclear where he was going. Fabius initially said he was headed to France, where his sister lives, then backtracked and said his destination was unknown. It was also not clear whether Tlass was actually joining the struggle against Assad – as was widely assumed.
The news bolstered hopes and helped allay frustrations among the varied opposition groups, many of whom want a concrete plan to oust Assad.
"The defection of Tlass, 16 months after the start of Syria's popular uprising, will encourage a lot of similar people to defect as well," Hassem Hashimi, a member of the Syrian National Council, predicted in an interview with The Associated Press in Paris.
The hope that it will inspire others to leave and open cracks in Assad's power base was one element that put opposition members on the same wave length as diplomats.
Tlass was a close friend and contemporary of Assad and, as the son of longtime Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, was a member of the Syrian Baath Party aristocracy, part of a privileged class that flourished under the Assad dynasty.
"I think it's a major blow to Assad to see somebody who's a close confidant defect at this point," said Abdel Basset Sida, head of the Syrian National Council. "This shows us that the very heart of the regime is starting to crumble."
Mustafa Tlass and Assad's father, Hafez Assad, had been close friends since their days in the Syrian military academy in Homs and became even closer after being posted to Cairo in the late 1950s. After Hafez Assad rose to power in the early 1970s, Mustafa Tlass became defense minister and the Syrian president's most trusted lieutenant as he created the repressive system that still controls the country.
When Hafez Assad died of a heart attack in 2000, the elder Tlass helped engineer Bashar Assad's succession to the presidency and guided the new leader, an inexperienced young doctor. Tlass was the leader of a coterie of old regime figures that critics blamed for reining in moves to liberalize the Syrian regime.
"These defections send a message to Assad, but perhaps more importantly they send a message to those still left, which I hope they hear and heed," Clinton told reporters. "We have no doubt about the outcome here. We know that the Assad regime will fall. The question is how many more people will have to die before that happens. We want to see those on the inside hasten the day when a new transition can begin."
The gathering in France's capital aimed to win wider support for a transition plan unveiled by Annan last week. Joined by America's allies, Clinton called for "real and immediate consequences for non-compliance, including sanctions," against the Assad regime.
But with neither Moscow nor Beijing in attendance, much remained dependent on persuading the two U.N. veto-wielding powers to force Assad into abiding by a cease-fire and the transition strategy. Ministers urged governments around the world to direct their pressure toward Russia and China.
Russia and China have twice blocked U.N. condemnations of Syria's government and just last weekend worked to water down Annan's transition plan.
The Kremlin rejected the anti-Assad call on Friday, with Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that Clinton's comments contradicted Annan's plan, which Washington and Moscow agreed to.
"There is no way of sitting on the side lines on this," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the meeting. "If you don't impose sanctions and implement them thoroughly you are allowing ... the Assad regime the means to go on killing the Syrian people and we see the tragic results every day."
He urged nations to immediately stop buying Syrian oil and end cooperation with companies tied to its oil industry.
Fabius, France's foreign minister, maintained that events were bearing down on Assad. Besides the defection, he noted a resolution voted Friday by the United Nations' top human rights body condemning the violence in Syria and demanding authorities cooperate with a U.N. investigation into "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights."
Approved by a 41-3 vote in the 47-nation Human Rights Council, the resolution also calls on Assad's regime to release all political prisoners and allow independent monitors to visit detention facilities.
At the Paris conference, Hashimi and other members of the Syrian opposition pressed for a no-fly zone, similar to that imposed on Libya last year, to prevent Assad's forces from "flying over defected soldiers and civilians and bombarding them."
There was no letup in violence Friday. At least 25 people were killed by Syrian forces who torched more than 100 homes while seizing the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun from rebels.
___Catherine Gaschka in Paris, Robert H. Reid in Berlin and Ben Hubbard in Beirut contributed to this report.
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.|
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.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
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.
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)
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.
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|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|