Manaf Tlass, top Syrian general, defects to France
PARIS - The defection of a Syrian general who is a personal friend of President Bashar al-Assad gave a huge boost to anti-government rebels as Western and Arab states met them in Paris on Friday to help prise Assad from power.
In some of the strongest U.S. remarks yet on a crisis that has divided the United Nations Security Council along Cold War lines, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Paris conference that Russia and China must "pay a price" for blocking U.N. sanctions that might press Assad into stepping down.
As she spoke, Manaf Tlass, a brigade commander in the Republican Guard who attended military college with Assad and fled to Turkey this week, was on his way to Paris, where his father, Assad's father's defense minister, has also taken up residence, a close family friend told Reuters.
There was no immediate sign that Tlass would throw in his lot with the rebels and an opposition source said he had no plans to attend Friday's meeting.
But his defection is the clearest signal yet that some in Assad's inner circle think his days in power are numbered, as an uprising that began in March 2011 with a groundswell of peaceful protest turns into a civil war with strong sectarian overtones.
While the lightly armed rebels are no match for Syria's large and well-equipped army, their hope lies in eroding loyalty and conviction within Assad's establishment to the point where it loses its hold on power.
Syrian armor pushed into the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun on Thursday, activists said, adding 11 victims to a death toll dissidents and Western leaders put at over 15,000.
French President Francois Hollande urged stiffer sanctions against Assad and more support for the rebels at the start of a meeting of Western and Arab states who back the uprising.
"Bashar al-Assad must go," Hollande told a meeting of foreign ministers and senior diplomats from the "Friends of Syria" group. "It's in the interest of Syria, of its neighbors and everybody who wants peace in the region."
And she called for states to penalize Russia and China:
"I will tell you very frankly, I don't think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all - nothing at all - for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime," Clinton said.
"The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price, because they are holding up progress - blockading it. That is no longer tolerable."
Completing the trio of Western veto-holding powers on the Council, Foreign Secretary William Hague for Britain told the conference that counties which failed to impose sanctions were allowing Assad's forces to go on killing.
The Paris meeting will, among other things, focus on firming up sanctions and closing loopholes such as continued Greek purchases of Syrian phosphates, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the newspaper Aujourd'hui en France.
Tlass, whose father Mustafa was defense minister under Assad's father for three decades, is a Sunni Muslim, from the majority community that has been the focus of the uprising against a ruling class rooted in Assad's minority Alawite sect.
Opposition activists said Tlass would announce that he had abandoned Assad because of anger at civilian deaths. A witness in Damascus said by phone that Tlass's house in Damascus had been ransacked by security agents after reports that he had fled.
Western governments, which are keen to bring down Assad but have shown no appetite for direct intervention like the NATO bombing that helped oust Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year, will relish the sign of a split among Assad's confidants.
"His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating," said a Western diplomat who knew Tlass in Damascus. "Manaf does not give the impression that he is a big thug, but he mattered in the military."
In Washington, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said: "General Tlass is a big name and his apparent decision to ditch Assad hurts, even though it probably didn't come as a surprise.
"Tlass lately seems to have been on the outs, but he's got charisma and some smarts. If he joins the insurgents that could be significant."
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, Syria's NATO-member neighbor which has become Assad's most outspoken foe, said defections proved that the Syrian government is crumbling.
"There are soldiers escaping, they are reporting to us that they are being instructed to attack people, and because of that they had to escape in order not to kill civilians," he told France 24 television.
"Every day, generals, colonels, officers are coming, and we have, I think, around 20 generals and maybe 100 high-ranking officers, colonels."
Turkey has moved artillery and troops towards its border with Syria in the two weeks since Syria shot down a Turkish warplane at the frontier. Turkey now says it will treat Syrian units that approach the border as hostile.
With heavy fighting now reaching the outskirts of the capital, events on the ground are outrunning the stalled efforts of diplomats from major powers.
A peace plan proposed by international envoy Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, has proved a dead letter, with his proposed ceasefire ignored and a small, unarmed U.N. monitoring team forced to suspend its work.
RUSSIA AND CHINA ABSENT
Clinton and Hague were among the 50 foreign ministers and delegates meeting in Paris. But Russia and China stayed away for a meeting they say is one-sided, and Assad's main regional ally Iran was not invited.
Senior U.S. officials said they hoped the talks would endorse transition planning by the Syrian opposition and lead to U.N. Security Council discussions as early as next week on economic sanctions against Assad's government.
But there was no sign that Russia and China would agree to such a resolution, let alone one that invoked Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which can potentially authorize use of force.
When Russian and Chinese delegates attended a broader meeting in Geneva last Saturday, they blocked language calling for Assad to step down. They have repeatedly blocked such language in U.N. Security Council resolutions.
"What form will that pressure take? We - and we believe most of the countries that'll be represented in Paris - think that has to include Chapter VII economic sanctions on Assad," a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters.
"That is the argument that we will continue to make to Russia and China," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. France has already said Chapter VII must be invoked.
A senior French diplomat said recent rebel territorial gains had led to signs that even Moscow was now envisaging a post-Assad Syria, something Russian officials strongly deny.
"The situation on the ground has changed fast over the past three weeks, with security forces having no access to some areas," the French diplomat said. "We are now hearing things from within political and military circles in Russia that are surprising us and that we were not hearing before."
Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to fund and arm the rebels, but Western powers have misgivings about sending more weapons into what could become a wider sectarian conflict.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani called in Paris for the Security Council to be sidestepped.
"Are we able to do something outside the Security Council? Yes. Have we done things outside the Security Council in the past? Yes, and there are many examples ...
"We are ready to take part in any effort of any kind to free the Syrian people of this tragedy they are in."
Tlass' whereabouts are unclear, though published reports said he has fled to France. It is arguably the highest profile departure from the Assad regime in 16 months of brutal government crackdowns and civil war.
In Paris, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton joined senior officials from about 100 other countries to win wider support for a Syrian transition plan unveiled last week by U.N. mediator Kofi Annan. Joined by America's allies, she 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 reluctant U.N. veto-wielding powers to force Assad into abiding by a cease-fire and the transition strategy. Clinton urged governments around the world to direct their pressure toward Russia and China, as well.
"What can every nation and group represented here do?" Clinton asked. "I ask you to reach out to Russia and China, and to not only urge but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people."
"I don't think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all — nothing at all — for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime," she added. "The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price. Because they are holding up progress, blockading it. That is no longer tolerable."
Frustrated by the difficult international diplomacy, Syria's fractured and frustrated opposition is seeking quick military actions instead.
"We're sick of meetings and deadlines. We want action on the ground," said activist Osama Kayal in the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun, which has been under Syrian army fire for days. He spoke via Skype from a nearby village.
Hassan Hashimi, general secretary of the opposition Syrian National Council, said he hoped to see a "tough stand" by diplomats, and a no-fly zone to prevent military forces "flying over defected soldiers and civilians and bombarding them."
But military intervention is not on the immediate horizon. U.S. officials say they are focusing on economic pressure, and the Obama administration says it won't intervene militarily or provide weapons to the Syrian rebels for what it considers to be an already too-militarized conflict. Any international mandate for military intervention would almost certainly be blocked by Russia and Moscow in the U.N. Security Council.
U.S. officials say a U.N. resolution could be introduced next week, but one that only seeks further economic pressure on Assad's government. Even the chances for that action are unclear, with Russia and China effectively watering down Annan's blueprint for transition at a conference in Geneva last weekend. It granted Assad veto over any interim government candidate he opposes. The opposition gained the same power.
Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the revolt began.
Tlass was probably the most important Sunni figure in Syria's Alawite-dominated regime.
As the son of longtime Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, the younger Tlass was a member of the Syrian Baath Party aristocracy, part of a privileged class that flourished under the Assad dynasty.
His father and Assad's father, Hafez, had been intimate friends since their days in the Syrian military academy in Homs and became close after they were posted in Cairo in the late 1950s when Egypt and Syria merged into the United Arab Republic — a union that lasted three years. After Hafez Assad rose to power in the early 1970s, Mustafa Tlass became defense minister and the Syrian president's most trusted lieutenant.
When Hafez died of a heart attack in 2000, Tlass helped engineer Bashar's succession to the presidency and guided the inexperienced young doctor. Tlass was the chief figure in a coterie of old regime figures that critics blamed for reining in moves to liberalize the Syrian regime.