Tlass defection will shake Syria's Sunnis

The general's decision to flee his country will reverberate through the merchant establishment, and may make others consider a similar move.

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The defection last week of a Syrian general has been hailed by the opposition as a "serious blow" to Bashar Al Assad's regime. It may well be more than that. It may be the start of an exodus, and so the long-awaited first serious crack in the inner core of support for the Assad government.

Manaf Tlass was no ordinary general. He served on the central committee of the ruling Baath party. His father, Mustafa Tlass, served for 30 years as defence minister, faithfully following the orders of Bashar Al Assad and, before that, of his feared father Hafez. Mustafa Tlass now lives in Paris, as does his businessman son Firas. Now Manaf has reportedly joined them there.

The exodus of some of the most important members of this well-placed family is significant for its symbolism. The Tlass family was perhaps the most prominent Sunni element of a tight-knit regime composed mainly of members of Syria's Alawite minority. In a majority Sunni country, the defection will have a powerful effect on the community.

In particular, it will reverberate through the merchant establishment, overwhelmingly Sunni and Christian. It will make many less prominent families ask themselves: "If the Tlass family thinks the regime is finished, what should we now do?"

This thinking will be particularly potent in the Christian community, which has long supported Assad out of fear.

The stability of Assad family rule has rested upon an alliance between the mainly-Alawite military elite and a merchant community. If one pillar totters, the other will be shaken.

The timing of the defection is striking: it fell between a disgracefully useless meeting of expatriate opposition leaders and the weekend's dead-end conference of international Friends of Syria.

Their frustration with Russian and Chinese intransigence was seen in comments from many leaders, notably the UAE's Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, who asked the gathered Arab and western nations, "When will we stop just watching and talking?" Sheikh Abdullah was calling for a new strategy to deal with Syria.

But now it appears that the decisive blow may be struck from inside Syria. If Gen Tlass's defection causes other influential Sunnis to withdraw support, the end of the Assad regime may come sooner than anyone has imagined.