When Syrian general Manaf Tlass fled his house in Damascus last week, becoming the highest-profile defector from President Bashar al-Assad's regime, he sparked a flurry of questions about the course of Syria's 16-month revolt. Does this mark the beginning of the end for Bashar, whose grip on power has been increasingly threatened by the uprising?
Press reports have described Tlass as a member of Assad's "inner circle," but this overstates their relationship -- his defection does not suggest that a fracture in the top ranks of the regime is imminent. However, his flight to Turkey is symbolically important: The Tlass family -- a Sunni clan that emerged under Manaf's father, former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, to become one of the most powerful in the country -- is perhaps the second most recognizable family name in Syria, after Assad. And Tlass's abandonment of his erstwhile patrons will no doubt affect the perspective of other Sunni businessmen, religious figures, and military men who are deciding where their loyalties lie.
The Tlass family is associated, perhaps more than any other in Syria, with the Assads' rise. Mustafa Tlass played the role of kingmaker for both Hafez al-Assad and especially his son, Bashar, when they came to power in 1970 and 2000, respectively. With Hafez, he launched a long and productive relationship when both men were at the Homs Military Academy in the early 1950s, and later when they were stationed in Cairo during the ill-fated years of the United Arab Republic (1958-1961). Both were already members of the Baath Party, which had become a political force in Syria by the mid-1950s. When the Baath took power in 1963, the fortunes of the two friends rose higher. Assad promoted Mustafa to high-ranking positions in the military and the party, which Mustafa used to help secure the officer corps' loyalty to Hafez -- a crucial factor as the future president maneuvered through intra-Baath disputes to emerge as the country's new leader. For his unwavering support, Tlass was appointed as defense minister in 1972, a position he held for 30 years.
As the most prominent Sunni in a leadership structure dominated by Assad's Alawite sect, the elder Tlass helped Hafez establish important connections with certain sectors of Syria's Sunni population, which comprises about 75 percent of the country. This generated important alliances with the Sunni business class and Sunni military officers, helping to ensure their loyalty to a minority-ruled regime and forging the military-mercantile complex that was the foundation of Assad's rule. The Tlass family's power and wealth, meanwhile, grew proportionately to its position in the ruling hierarchy.
Mustafa Tlass's loyalty to Hafez al-Assad was never in question. And his devotion was most dramatically displayed when he sided with Hafez against the president's brother, Rifaat al-Assad, who in the early 1980s attempted to push Hafez aside amid the tumult following the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's failed revolt, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the president's ill health.
In a sign of the degree Hafez to which trusted Mustafa, the president relied heavily on him to help groom Bashar for the presidency after his brother, Basil, the putative heir, died in a car accident in 1994. Mustafa's support was absolutely crucial to Bashar's accession to the presidency upon his father's death in 2000 because other members of the so-called old guard -- such as Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam -- also had their eyes on the prize. As one high-level Syrian official described it to me, very soon after news emerged of Hafez's death, Tlass essentially gathered the generals together and steered them in favor of Bashar.
Loyalty was once again rewarded. Mustafa Tlass continued on as defense minister, and his son Manaf -- among other members of the family, which was already perched high in Syria's oligarchic society -- immediately assumed a position of power as a presumed insider. But Mustafa did not serve Bashar for long: He was replaced as defense minister in 2002. Some said he was nudged aside by Bashar and the younger generation of Syrian leaders, while others said that, having seen Bashar and Manaf secure power, he resigned voluntarily. Either option is plausible.