“Bashar is president or we burn down the country!” That is the menacing message being scrawled on burnt houses and bullet-pocked stone walls by pro-Assad forces as they make their way across Syria. The graffiti often appears following an assault by the Shabiha, an Alawite militia drawn from the same sectarian community as the country’s elite. Days into the regime’s siege of Aleppo, President Bashar al-Assad is now sending the same message to Syria’s financial capital and largest city. Convoys of regime forces have encircled Aleppo, and Air Force jets and helicopters are now pounding rebel-controlled neighborhoods. “Aleppo will be the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists,” boasted Al Watan, a pro-regime newspaper, “and after that Syria will emerge from the crisis.”
The rebels are confident, too. They have stock piled ammunition, medical supplies, and called in reinforcements from insurgent battalions across northern Syria, as well as sympathizers from abroad. “Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans,” said one activist, who says he saw fighters from these countries in a mountain camp outside the city. The battle for Aleppo is shaping up to be a decisive moment in Syria’s civil war, as the Syrian army carries out a full military assault on a city of 2 million people.
Some of the most critical blows to Assad’s regime have come far from the battlefield. In recent months, Assad’s top political, diplomatic, and military circles have suffered a number of prominent defections. None may be more significant than Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, the most prominent military defector thus far. The Sunni Muslim general has ties to both the Alawite establishment and the military elite. A figure as senior as Tlas may seem late to have quit the regime—he defected on June 6, 2012—but his timing may be perfect. Arab and Western governments are rushing to put together a transitional strategy for post-Assad Syria. Tlas appears to be backed by Saudi Arabia and, according to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials are in discussions with Middle East governments to place Tlas at the “center of a political transition.” “If he’s pushed by desperate big powers, its wishful thinking,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “They are scrambling. They’ve chosen the wrong man with a very dubious background and history.”
Indeed, the very history and connections that give Tlas some currency at the highest reaches of Assad’s regime are also likely to reduce his appeal to the rebel forces he would need to unite.
The Tlas family certainly has long and familiar ties with the Assad family. Manaf Tlas’ father, Mustapha Tlas, a former defense minister was part of the fearsome “old guard” that served the Assads for decades and helped arrange a smooth transition of power when Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency following his father’s death in 2000. But some parts of the younger Tlas’ background and political pedigree make him a more appealing potential unifier. He’s a Sunni Muslim—like more than 70 percent of Syria—with close ties to the West, especially in France. His sister, Nahred Ojjeh, is a wealthy Parisian socialite. She’s married to a Saudi businessman with extensive contacts in the Gulf. There is little doubt that Manaf Tlas is Saudi Arabia’s choice for a prominent role in a future Syrian state.
Tlas made his first public speech following his defection on Al Arabiya, the Saudi-backed satellite channel. In fact, Saudi Arabia appears to be supporting Tlas through a high-profile media campaign intended to introduce him to a wider audience, including other Middle Eastern regimes and the Syrian exiled opposition. Tlas made a surprising trip to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in late June—even though the Syrian general is better known for frequenting the Syrian party circuit than engaging in public pieties—and his pilgrimage was broadcast repeatedly by Al Arabiya’s second channel, the equivalent of C-SPAN. He then made his offer to become a key transitional figure who was willing to step in after the Syrian regime’s collapse. He put himself forward in an interview with the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, which has long served as a mouth piece for Saudi foreign policy.
Tlas may be a contender. Every statement he’s made since his defection has been carefully crafted, says Amr Azm, a Syrian born professor of Middle East History at Shawnee University in Ohio. His words have been clearly designed to “reserve him a seat on any transitional body” that retains elements of the Assad regime. “There are many in the regime whose hands are not stained with blood,” Tlas said in his first interview published in Asharq al-Awsat, “They should not be ostracized. We need to safeguard our national institutions as well as Syria the state.” His statements reflect a widespread hope in Western capitals that Syrian state institutions will remain intact, avoiding a repeat of the chaos that followed the collapse of the Iraqi state in 2003.
But Tlas’ talking points and political résumé won’t count for much if he is not acceptable to rebel commanders across Syria. These fighters have amassed local power and prestige, but have failed to come together as a coherent fighting force as the battle shifts from the countryside to Syria’s urban centers. Here again, Tlas’ foreign backing could prove critical. “If you are able to supply weapons and money, you will gain traction on the ground,” says Amr Azm, “It will translate into political power. If it doesn’t translate immediately, it will soon after. Who ever holds the ground will be able to call the shots.” Saudi Arabia is one of the Gulf states reported to be funneling weapons to the rebels. A steady supply of weapons and cash from a former general will be a potent selling point for Tlas.
Tlas’ public remarks and his heavy rotation in the Saudi media has set off a heated debate among Syrians. Facebook postings are full of reminders that the Tlas family is part of Assad’s corrupt state machine. Stories are floating about the antics of his father, the former defense minister. According to one story, Mustapha Tlas once bestowed an ancient Ottoman sword on actress Sophia Loren when the Italian actress made a celebrated visit to Damascus. Supposedly, the defense minister spontaneously broke the glass case containing the sword, hauled out the ancient artifact, and handed it to a shocked Loren. The museum staff looked on in horror, the story goes, knowing better than to raise a word of protest. Such is life in a harsh dictatorial regime run by a small clutch of families; a country’s historical artifacts are gifts the truly powerful can simply choose to give away.
Opinion is divided, inside and outside Syria, as to whether Assad will be able to hold on in the weeks and months ahead. Some would say the mere fact that a former regime playboy like Tlas is being held up as potential future opposition leader speaks to how few (and desperate) the options are. Foreign capitals clearly see themselves in a race to produce a transitional authority to match the pace of the fighting, which has accelerated considerably in recent weeks. He has emerged as the political opposition, the Syrian National Council, has failed to unite or offer a credible roadmap for Syria’s future. The rising profile of Manaf Tlas represents the hope that there is some figure who can reach out to both sides of the sectarian divide and advocate a pluralistic reconciliation after the fighting is done. But as Syria’s civil war rages on, it may get harder for any Syrian to bridge that divide.