Assad feels heat as top officer defects
THE prospect of a senior army general giving help to the opposition after his defection from Syria was hailed by the United States yesterday as a demonstration the ground was shifting from under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said "regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet", as Brig Gen Manaf Tlas, a childhood friend of the Syrian president, was said to be heading for Paris, where he has a sister.
At an international Friends of Syria meeting in the French capital yesterday, the US and Britain led calls for tough action against Damascus, seeking to put pressure on Russia and China to stop using their veto at the United Nations in protection of Mr Assad.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said refusing to impose sanctions allowed the regime "to go on killing the Syrian people".
In a concerted diplomatic effort, Ms Clinton said Russia and China were not "paying any price at all -- nothing at all -- for standing with the Assad regime". Her remarks were immediately rebuffed as "inappropriate" by Moscow.
Kofi Annan, the international envoy to Syria, who has drafted a plan designed to bring Mr Assad's departure, warned the West and Russia, which did not attend the meeting, that their "destructive competition" was allowing the civil war to spread.
A change of heart in Russia, which clings to Syria as its only ally in the Middle East, is regarded by western powers as one of the two best hopes for bringing about change. The other is that the power structure around Mr Assad crumbles, hence the enthusiasm for Brig Gen Tlas's defection.
"Those with the closest knowledge of Assad's actions and crimes are moving away. We think that's a very promising development," said Ms Clinton.
The opposition Syrian National Council was reluctant to say whether Brig Gen Tlas would be allowed to join their ranks, but a spokesman said he would certainly be asked to "play a supporting role for our army" and would be "a wealth of valuable information to us".
Brig Gen Tlas fell out with Mr Assad last year over the violent repression of the uprising, which has claimed an estimated 15,000 lives.
His defection did not come as a total surprise. After trying and failing to reconcile regime loyalists and rebels in Rastan, his home city, he gave up his military uniform and rarely left his residence in Damascus.
His cousin, Abdel Razzak, commands the rebel Free Syrian Army in Homs, while his brother Firas defected last year and lives in Dubai.
The family is Sunni, the majority community that has been the focus of the uprising against a ruling class rooted in Mr Assad's minority Alawite sect. (© Daily Telegraph, London)