Gen. Manaf Tlass: Russia’s Dark Horse for Damascus

On July 6, 2012, the US Defense Department confirmed that Syrian Brig, Gen. Manaf Tlass had defected and was heading for Turkey, defining his action as “a crack in the inner circle” of President Bashar Assad.
For the next five years of bloody Syrian war, Manaf Tlass dropped out of sight – until Monday, Jan. 16, when he was suddenly catapulted onto the center of the Syrian scene.
It turned out that the Syrian general, at 53, is at the top of Moscow’s list of the Syrian opposition leaders invited to the peace conference opening in Astana, Kazakhstan on Sunday, Jan. 23.
Tlass shares the top spot with Mohammed Alloush, leader of Jaish al-Islam-Army of Islam, the most powerful militia fighting in the Damascus region.
However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources, President Vladimir Putin’s strategic advisers have tapped the general as their dark horse for succeeding Assad as president of Syrian – in due course.
The Kremlin has not shared this plan with the Damascus incumbent or his Iranian allies. They had forgotten about the existence of the former favorite of the Assad dynasty, who chose exile over a life of privilege.
Manaf was born into the ruling Baath party aristocracy as the scion of Gen. Mustafa Tlass, the powerful defense minister who served Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad.
He grew up as a close buddy of heir apparent Basal Assad. When Basal died in a car accident in 1994, Bashar was anointed heir, recalled from England where he trained as an optometrist. And when Hafez died in 2000, and Bashar succeeded to the presidency, Manaf Tlass was the young ruler’s right hand.
His climb up the ladder of power in Damascus followed naturally. Elected to the Baath central committee that year, he was reelected five years later. During that time, he followed in his father’s footsteps and carved out an army career.
But he was also sensitive to the popular disaffection building up against the Assads and the rule of their minority Alawite sect. In 2005, he urged his friend Bashar to consider reforms, and introduced him to members of the powerful Sunni merchant class to expand his base of support.
By 2011, when the uprising erupted against the Assad regime, Manaf Tlass was a one-star general in the Republican Guards, the unit that led operations for crushing the insurgency. He was then commander of the 104th Brigade, a post previously held by Bashar himself.
But shortly after Tlass was reported to have conducted unsuccessful talks with opposition leaders he decided to go into exile. In the summer of 2012, when the insurgency started gaining traction, he left Damascus for good..
His old friend Bashar regarded him bitterly as no better than a traitor and a renegade. A pro-government website close to Syrian intelligence accused the defector of orchestrating “terror” (Assad’s euphemism for Syrian rebels) operations and contacts with foreign enemies.
On July 4, 2012, Syrian troops raided his home in the upscale neighborhood of Mezzeh, emptied it of all his possessions and confiscated documents, weapons and vehicles.
At the “Friends of Syria” conference in Paris, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that “regime insiders and the military establishment were starting to vote with their feet.”
Prematurely optimistic, she hailed his and other defections as showing that “those with the closest knowledge of Assad’s actions and crimes are moving away. We think that’s a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime.”
That miscalculation was just the start of Obama administration’s unrealistic evaluations of the Syrian conflict and Assad’s chances of survival. The policies emanating from those missed turns left a void which the Russians exploited three years later with a massive injection of military firepower. Having determined its outcome, Moscow aims to reap its reward by shaping Syria’s political future.
DEBKA Weekly‘s intelligence sources hold up the unheralded reappearance of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass at the center of the Syrian stage as a symbol of the unpredictable changes overtaking the region and the rise of new players who are charting the next chapter of its history.

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