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With Tlass Defection Bashar Assad's Troubles Are Mounting

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The Tlass family is not yet another Syrian family. Next to the Assad clan, this was the most famous Sunni family in the country, known for supporting the Alawite-dominated regime.

Father Mustafa Tlass, an 80-year-old retired general, was Hafiz Assad's most trusted lieutenant for 40 years, most of this time as Defense Minister, a title of significance, though without real power, as this has always been in the hands of Alawite officers.

The general, who was idle most of the time, still found occupations to fill his free days, and there were many of them. He published his love letters to Sophia Loren, among others, and gave bizarre press interviews, in which he complicated the regime in diplomatic troubles. For example, when he suggested to Der Spiegel to restore the Anschluss between Austria and Germany. He was not in trouble though, when he authored a book called, The Matza of Zion, in which he invoked the Damascus anti-Semitic blood libel of 1840. Not also, when he referred to Yasser Arafat as the "son of 60,000 prostitutes," no less...

In short, supporters of the Syria could not have asked for a nicer guy to represent this good-meaning regime. All his aberrations were excused because he was a Sunni officer, and so it could be claimed that the regime was not based solely on Alawites. In 2004, Bashar Assad forced the old romantic general to retire, but the family continued to be prominent in the close circle around the dictator. One son, Firas, was the second richest person in Syria, eclipsed only by the maternal cousin of the President, Rami Makhlouf.

The second son,Manaf, was the commander of the 105 Brigade of the Republican Guard Division, an important position, a token of the closeness of the two families. Mustafa Tlass and Firas left Syria some months ago, but no need to worry for the family financing. Firas managed to smuggle a lot of money.

Now, it was confirmed that Manaf defected as well. And some time ago, his young cousin, Abdul Razzak Tlass did it as well. So, is it just an inter-family feud, or yet another dramatic omen, that the regime is nearing its end? Three important elements point to the latter. First, the Tlass clan is from Rastan, a town near Homs, known for its tradition as the home ground of many officers. The Tlass clan, being so involved with the military, have been just one, though prominent example, of that state of affairs. Alongside the Tlasses, many other Rastan-born Sunni officers defected.

Secondly, the defection dramatically highlights the sectarian nature of the civil war. The Sunni hinterland is systematically destroyed by the Alawites, with thousands of casualties, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees in their own country. In the moment of truth, even Sunni stalwarts of the regime are opting to side with their own people against the Alawites, no doubt realizing what will happen when the day of reckoning comes, and the sectarian conflict will become an all-out struggle.

Thirdly, the ability of such a senior officer from the immediate entourage of the dictator to defect signals the depth of the penetration of the opposition to the centers of power. A regime based on installing fear and demanding blind loyalty must take note of that. Any defection of high-ranking officer leads a wave of arrests, which in turn will lead to more defections.

Bashar Assad and his family must feel the pressure, and statements made a few days ago by the dictator berating all those who predict his downfall, are not changing anything. The reality of the situation is that this is a doomed regime. This has been the consistent position of this particular blog, and no reason to change it now.

The regime controls less than half of the country, the troops which participate in the fighting are almost only Alawites, and the defections of Sunnis are on the increase. There are unverified reports about restiveness among the Druze and other pro-regime minorities. Regardless of denials by the U.S. and other countries, the rebels, particularly the Free Syria Army, get more advanced weapons than before, and, at least, in parts of the Syria-Turkey border, there is a buffer zone which is in operation, though not formally declared as such. The "Friends of Syria" conference in Paris is in session which will not lead to any dramatic change, but after almost 18 months of uprising, we should not expect a dramatic ending.

The dynamics of the situation as unfolded until now clearly indicate that Syria constitutes a special case in the chronicles of the "Arab Spring," but one which will lead to a result similar to that achieved in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt -- a change of the regime. When this will happen, the Tlass defection will be remembered as one of the stepping stones, though it is very doubtful whether even that defection will save the family from the wrath of their Sunni compatriots when the regime finally collapses.