BEIRUT -- A former Syrian general whose defection was called a major blow to President Bashar Assad has finally spoken out publicly, voicing support for the rebellion but expressing fears that Syria could be torn asunder.
“Our duty, as Syrians, is to unite for the sake of a single objective: To make our country free and democratic without destroying it,” former Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas said in a statement broadcast Tuesday by Al Arabiya, the pan-Arab satellite network. “Our revolution must be against corruption and tyrants but without tearing up the social fabric.”
Tlas, scion of a powerful Sunni Muslim family, appeared to be warning against sectarian divisions in a nation where power has rested for decades with Assad's minority Alawite sect. Many in the Sunni majority have chafed under Alawite rule.
“Our duty as Syrians is to reassure each other and not give the opportunity to this regime and all those who want to fuel conflict between us Syrians,” said Tlas, whose defection caused headlines this month.
With his tousled hair and wearing an open-collar shirt, Tlas didn’t fit the stereotype of what a defecting Syrian general would look like.
His whereabouts were not certain, though reports have suggested that he has relocated to France, where much of his family is said to have fled.
Tlas is the son of Mustafa Tlas, a former defense minister under Hafez Assad, father and predecessor of Bashar Assad. Many in the opposition movement despise the elder Tlas and are also wary of his son.
Tlas spoke out as Assad completed a security shuffle to replace four top lieutenants killed in last week’s bombing in Damascus. The new appointees were all security “hawks,” reported Joshua Landis in his Syria Comment blog.
The latest defections from Syria's foreign service appear to involve a husband-and-wife diplomatic team. Reuters reported the defection of Abdellatif Dabbagh, Syria’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and his wife, Lamia Hariri, the top Syrian diplomat in Cyprus.
Hariri was also described in news accounts as the niece of Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara, sometimes mentioned as a leader in a possible transitional government. In January, the Arab League called on Assad to relinquish power to his vice president as part of a sweeping political reform plan. Syria rejected the proposal as an affront to its sovereignty.
--Patrick J. McDonnell and Alexandra Sandels
Photo: Former Syrian Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas appears on Al Arabiya news channel in his first public appearance since defecting this month. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Al Arabiya