PENTAGON — U.S. military officials are welcoming the defection of Syrian Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, a commander of Syria’s elite Republican Guard.
Violence has been escalating in Syria in recent days and so has the number of high-level officers who are leaving the Syrian army. On hearing that Brigadier General Manaf Tlass - a senior official in the Syrian army and a former friend of the Assad family - had defected, U.S. defense officials said the news is not something to be taken lightly.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby told reporters the defection appears to be a crack in President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle because the general was so close to the ruling family.
“It’s just another example of a senior member of the Syrian army who’s decided to turn against the regime to stop committing violent acts against the Syrian people. So we welcome this defection and believe it’s significant,” Kirby said.
Manaf Tlass is the son of former Defense Minister, Mustafa Tlass, who helped Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, set up the country’s internal security apparatus four decades ago.
Kirby indicated U.S. officials are watching for signs of more high-level defections from the Syrian army.
“We certainly hope that that’s the case. This is just another defection here that we’ve seen. We hope that others will follow his example. Absolutely,” Kirby said.
Pentagon officials are not speculating on whether General Tlass’ departure indicates that the Assad government is about to crack under the weight of defections. They note that Assad is still surrounded by loyalists who are following his orders.
“Bashar al-Assad has basically had a very tightly knit group of people controlling the mechanisms of government and I think breaking that up through diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions is a very difficult thing to do but this defection I think demonstrates that Assad’s position has weakened over time,” said Brian Katulis, a security analyst at the Center for American Progress, a research organization in Washington.
The U.S. administration is providing non-lethal aid to the rebels through the Department of State and Pentagon officials on Friday said there are no plans to begin supplying weapons.
Defense and intelligence officials believe that sending weapons into Syria could lead to an escalation of the conflict and chaos because - among other things - the Syrian opposition and rebels have not developed a command and control structure.
For now, the U.S. is focusing on diplomatic efforts and assisting allies in the region who are more directly involved with intelligence on the situation in Syria.
U.S. defense officials say General Tlass was in Turkey Friday and had not had any contact with him.