A top Syrian general and one-time confidante of President Bashar al-Assad has defected from Syria and is believed to be in Turkey, a potentially serious blow to Assad's regime.
Sipan Hassan of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told VOA his activist group learned from journalists and security sources in Syria that Manaf Tlas has left the country.
“What we can say about this defection, it will be a very important strike to the regime of Bashar al-Assad because Manaf Tlas was one of the important people in the regime and he was very close to the presidential family, to Bashar al-Assad and his brother, Maher, and also he was from the Republican Guards," said Hassan. "The defection of someone like Manaf Tlas, we can take it as the beginning of the end for Bashar al-Assad.”
Hassan said Tlas is expected to formally announce his defection in the coming days. The activist said Colonel Riad al-Assad of the opposition Free Syrian Army announced on Thursday that Tlas is in Turkey.
Turkey has not confirmed that Tlas is in that country.
Western and Middle Eastern news sources, as well as Syrian opposition groups, have also have reported the general's defection.
Hassan also said the general's departure may influence other Syrian military officers to leave the country.
"Sure, 100 percent, this defection will be effective for maybe another higher-level also in the regime, and he had very good relations with officers and generals, and that will be a very important step in the defections in the Syrian military,” added Hassan.
Hassan said his group has heard that Tlas may be in Paris Friday for the Friends of Syria meeting, which includes delegates from about 100 countries opposed to Assad and 100 members of the opposition.
French President Francois Hollande opened the meeting by saying that Assad must relinquish his hold on power. He said the Syrian president's departure is in everyone's best interest.
Hollande also called for an increase in humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the meeting, also denounced the Assad regime. She said it is against "every norm of international law and human decency" for a government to murder its own people.
She urged the U.N. Security Council to support a measure that would impose immediate sanctions on Syria, and she called on Russia and China to back the aspirations of the Syrian people.
Russia and China, two of Syria's most powerful allies, are not participating in the Paris meeting. The two permanent Security Council members have repeatedly vetoed tough Council action against Syria.