By: Julian Borger
The Tlass family helped bridge the Alawite-Sunni divide. Their departure has major implications for the government and the war.
The Tlass family was a privileged linchpin of the Assad regime that bound ruling Alawites and the Sunni elite together in an alliance of self-interest.
The clan’s defection is likely to hasten the system’s collapse, but also intensify the sectarian nature of the escalating conflict.
The dramatic escape of Manaf Tlass, the younger of two powerful brothers and a Republican Guard general, has highlighted the rift with the regime, but the family has clearly planned its departure stealthily for months. The patriarch, Mustafa, a former defence minister and long-standing Assad family consiglieri, had left this year for France, ostensibly for medical treatment. The elder brother, Firas, a tycoon, had progressively moved his business to Dubai. Together, their break with the house of Assad is a blow to the heart of the regime.
“Mustafa was Hafez al-Assad’s Sunni insurance,” said Fabrice Balanche, a scholar on Syria at the University of Lyons. In return for his loyalty, Assad showered favours and patronage on the Tlass hometown of Rastan.
“[The defection] is big. This is the powerful Sunni family in the country,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who runs the website Syria Comment. “It signals the end of the Sunni-Alawite alliance which was the keystone of the regime. Since the beginning of the revolt, people have been waiting for the Sunni elite to defect, but it stayed a rebellion of the poor, angry, young men from the countryside. Now as the rebellion creeps into the big cities, it is becoming more a civil war along sectarian lines, Sunni versus Alawite.”
Reports from Damascus say the Tlass homes are being ransacked, and the regime, in its increasing paranoia, is turning on its own well-heeled Sunni supporters. “Other senior Sunnis are being interrogated, and having passports confiscated. The regime is frightened, and as they drag these people in for questioning, they lose their loyalty, so it is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Landis said.
Assad showed particular favour to the Tlass sons. Firas acquired a business with a monopoly on supplying the Syrian army with food, uniforms and medical provisions. Manaf was sent into the army and became part of the gilded circle around the president, his contemporary and close friend. He was made a general in the Republican Guard, a praetorian elite charged with protecting the president and his family in Damascus.
He was useful in the early stages of the revolt, as a channel to the Sunni community, but that usefulness withered as Assad opted increasingly for brute force.
“The Tlasses were pampered by the regime because they could guarantee the loyalty of the Sunnis of central Syria,” Balanche said. “Now being incapable of guaranteeing that role, there is no need to give them gifts.
Manaf was a Sunni general in an Alawite Republican Guard. He had no power at all … He had no choice but to leave.”
Joseph Bahout, a professor and Middle East specialist at Sciences Po institute in Paris, said: “Once the regime decided to go for all-out suppression it had no more need for Manaf. But the defection of an entire clan is a symbolic and moral blow. The regime is more naked as a result. It is ethnically isolated and a lot of people like Manaf are going to be thinking now about doing the same thing.”
Source: The Guardian