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Martin Chulov in Rehanliya, Julian Borger and Kim Willsher in Paris, Thursday 12th July 2012 20:26
Last Thursday afternoon in a Turkish hamlet not far from the town of Rehanliya on the Syrian border, two black four-wheel drive cars with tinted windows appeared amid the olive groves and red-soiled farmland of what has become a gathering point for Syrian defectors. They came to a temporary halt to allow a herd of sheep and goats to pass before proceeding gingerly down the tattered concrete lane through the olive trees.
They carried a coveted prize in the long covert war with the Syrian regime. Behind the smoked glass was Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, once a confidant of the Assad family, and the most significant defector to have fled Damascus by far.
The cars turned right up a steep hill towards a Turkish observation tower, where Tlass's passage to safety had been co-ordinated with the Free Syrian command near the southern Turkish city of Antakya.
From Antakya, Tlass was soon on his way to Paris, where breaking news of his defection was greeted with jubilation by a gathering of western and Arab foreign ministers as a telling blow to Assad's wounded but ferocious regime. But left behind among the olive groves on the border, other defectors, including senior army officers, took a more jaundiced view of his sudden flight as they gathered for dinner.
"There is something not right about this," said Colonel Abu Hamza, a commander from Jebel al-Zawiya. "There were two eyes on him when he prayed and when he ate. How could he and his family escape without them knowing? We need to get to the bottom of it."
Over the past few days, there has been neither sight nor sound from Manaf Tlass and his family, once a Sunni mainstay of the Assad regime. According to a diplomatic source, the former Republican Guard general was being debriefed in Paris by French intelligence officials, presumably anxious to discover how many other former top loyalists might be ready to bolt in Tlass's wake, and how hollow is the structure keeping Bashar al-Assad in place. The Syrian opposition in Paris promise the former general, once a close friend of the Syrian president, will surface in the next few days and make his position clear.
While the exile opposition wait, a second top Sunni has followed Tlass's example and bolted. Nawaf al-Fares, the Syrian ambassador to Baghdad and the head of an influential tribe on the Syrian-Iraqi border, fled to Doha, in a defection believed to have been organised and financed by Qatari intelligence, to raise a rebel banner in the Gulf, telling Syrian soldiers to "turn your guns on the criminals" in the Damascus regime.
But Colonel Hamza's question over dinner last Thursday night remains unanswered. The logistics of General Tlass's escape are unclear but it clearly would not have been easy. He was indeed under close scrutiny from the security services at his Damascus home since a previous bid to defect was leaked in March and had to be aborted. In fact, according to one opposition figure, Tlass's flight had been in the works for more than a year.
"Manaf had decided to defect very early on in the revolution and got in touch with the FSA to plan ahead. They advised him to stay in place as he would serve them better being on the inside rather than the outside.
"The same instructions had been given to a very large number of acting officers as they fed the Free Syrian Army with operational information and troop movements giving the FSA enough notice about impending attacks to avoid casualties and plan counter attacks," the opposition figure said.
General Tlass's usefulness inside Damascus, however, must have declined sharply over time, as the regime lost trust in his family's loyalty, and that loss of faith was itself an important step in Assad's slide towards isolation. The Tlass clan's fidelity was once important to the Ba'athist system.
The patriarch, Mustafa, was at Hafez al-Assad's side when he staged his coup in 1970, and rose to become defence minister. The role was mostly symbolic, a way of cementing a high-profile Sunni to the Alawite core of the system, said one Syrian businessman.
"Tlass in particular was never really taken seriously in his position as defence minister, neither internally where he was known to be more interested in chasing after beautiful women, nor externally by the Israelis," the businessman said. "He was a regular in the Damascene social scene always to be found by the swimming pool of the Sheraton hotel during high summer."
An easy ascent was also offered to his sons. The elder, Firas, was given a business contract to supply uniforms and rations to the armed forces, and Manaf, a member of the tight circle of gilded youth around Bashar al-Assad when the latter inherited the regime in 2000, was made a Republican Guard general under the command of the president's younger brother, Maher.
The Tlass family's complicity in the regime, and that of other Sunni elites, helped to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Hama in 1982, but they were not prepared to countenance a repeat of such brutal measures directed against fellow Sunni clansmen from their home town of Rastan in the current uprising. As the regime's reaction to the Syrian spring became more and more ruthless, Manaf Tlass was cast out of the inner circle to brood in his Damascus home.
A turning point came last August when a delegation of senior Hezbollah officials came to Damascus and was due to eat an Iftar meal, to break the Ramadan fast.
The Hezbollah men asked Manaf what he thought about Assad's handling of the situation, according to one Syrian source.
"The response came fast and dry – 'a donkey'," said the source. "In Arabic, the poor animal occupies a very low level in the hierarchy of the animal kingdom and the term is generally used to denote a clueless person with no intelligence whatsoever.
"Taking it as an insult, the Hezbollah team got up and apologised for not being able to have dinner there as they made up other excuses.
"As Firas and Manaf stood up to accompany their hosts out, which is customary in these events, their father asked to sit down and let the guests leave unaccompanied, a sign of derision in Arab customs."
The breach had become public, displayed in front of foreigners, but Manaf's wife, Thala Khair, nevertheless appears to have kept up an amiable email correspondence with Assad as least until January this year, perhaps as an insurance policy for the protection of her family.
In the emails, hacked and leaked by the opposition, she urges the president to do more to sell the reforms he was making. "Make sure everyone sees it as Syria 2.0 and not 1.05," she wrote in December.
On New Year's Day she wrote: "May 2012 be nothing like 2011 and may you lead our beloved country back to peace, stability and prosperity [despite] the evil wishes of all the enemies of our nation.
"May God protect you, this country and its people from all the evil that has been orchestrated against all!"
All the while, however, it appears the Tlass family was planning its escape. Thala Khair made her way to Paris in recent months, as did her father-in-law, Mustafa Tlass, supposedly to seek medical care. The clan had a second home to go in Paris, as Mustafa's eldest child, Nahed had become a glittering presence on the top-tier social scene since 1979.
Now 52, she is now known as Nahed Ojjeh. Akram Ojjeh, her now dead husband, was a wealthy Saudi arms dealer whom she married when she was 18 and he was 60. She has one son, Akram Junior, who has won some notoriety for reportedly keeping piranhas at their Paris mansion, one of the largest and most majestic homes in the French capital – a huge 'hotel particuliere' on Place des Etats Unis in the chic 16th arrondissement.
From there, Nahed Ojjeh runs a political salon. She was said to be a friend of François Mitterrand, and holds dinner parties attended by Nicolas Sarkozy and the foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin. Her current boyfriend is the editor of Le Point news magazine, Franz-Olivier Giesbert.
The intimate link with the French elite has led to speculation that the escape of the youngest son and most pivotally placed member of the family was stage-managed by French intelligence.
It does seem clear that the solicitation of defections by members of the Sunni elite has become an important strategy for the Friends of Syria states to weaken the Assad regime, especially in view of their continuing failure to persuade the Russians and Chinese to back sanctions.
Only national governments like France and Qatar have the wherewithal to offer the protection, security, and financial rewards necessary to lure away acolytes like Manaf Tlass, calculating correctly that it was self-interest that had bound them to the regime in the first place.