Defected Assad confidant seeks Syrian unity

By The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s most prominent defector has put himself forward as someone to unite the fractured opposition as the disparate factions were set to gather in Qatar Thursday to try to agree on a transitional leadership if Bashar Assad’s regime is toppled.

Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a commander in the powerful Republican Guard and the son of a former defense minister who was the most trusted lieutenant of the president’s father, defected in early July and flew to Paris. He is now in Saudi Arabia, a key financial backer of the rebellion, where he told the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily that he does not see a future for Syria with his former friend at the helm.

“I will try and help as much as I can to unite all the honorable people inside and outside Syria to put together a roadmap to get us out of this crisis, whether there is a role for me or not,” he said, explaining that he was in Saudi Arabia to assess what kind of assistance the oil-rich nation could give to help create a new Syria.

In the three weeks since his defection he has only spoken publicly twice, both times to Saudi-controlled media.

Tlass, once a close confidant of the president’s, said the regime has many good people without blood on their hands and the country’s institutions should be preserved.

He said he had tried to persuade the president not to listen to his inner circle of security advisers who were all counseling for a harsh crackdown on the uprising, which began as peaceful protests in March 2011 but morphed into a civil war.

He said he defected when he realized the regime could not be deterred from its single-minded pursuit of crushing the opposition.

“Sometimes in a friendship you advise a friend many times, and then you discover that you aren’t having any impact, so you decide to distance yourself,” he said.

The meeting in Doha will focus on forming a transitional administration that could step in as a stopgap government if rebel forces topple Assad. It marks the most comprehensive bid to bring together various Syrian opposition groups and show world leaders a credible alternative to Assad.

It is not clear, however, if Tlass would be an acceptable leadership figure for the opposition or the rebels fighting – and dying – on the ground, especially considering how close his family has been to the regime.

One European Union official familiar with Western intelligence reports, however, dismissed Tlass as a “peripheral figure” in the regime, who had been sidelined. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the material.

The Syrian National Council has acted as the international face of the revolution, but it’s been unable to unite the dozens of disparate rebel factions under one banner or even assert much control over the rag-tag rebel groups fighting inside the country.

Rebels who have been fighting for six days in the commercial capital Aleppo, meanwhile, braced themselves amid reports that the government is massing reinforcements to retake the embattled city of 3 million. They reported more intense firepower being used against them, including artillery strikes as well as strafing by attack helicopters and fighter jets.

“Regime forces have been randomly shelling neighborhoods and the civilians are terrified,” local activist Mohammed Saeed told The Associated Press via Skype.

The clashes have spread to neighborhoods close to the center of the city, which has a medieval center that is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Last week, Syrian troops used a similar combination of artillery bombardments and overwhelming ground force to quash the rebel assault on Damascus. Government forces far outgun the rebels, but it took them a week to get the assault under control and they were unable to prevent a rebel bombing that killed four high-level regime figures in a sign that the opposition’s capabilities are improving.

The White House said Wednesday that the use of heavy weapons in Aleppo showed “the depth of depravity” of Assad’s regime. Spokesman Jay Carney said Syrian forces were perpetrating “heinous violence” against civilians in the city.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting and shelling in Aleppo killed 26 people on Wednesday, including many children. It estimated that a total of 160 died throughout the country, where fighting continues in the cities of Hama, Homs, Daraa and Deir al-Zour.

July is on track to be the bloodiest month so far in the uprising, with nationwide death tolls estimated at well over 100 people a day, according to the Observatory. That would make it as bad as Iraq when bitter sectarian fighting pushed it to the brink of civil war in 2006. Activists say 19,000 have been killed since the uprising began.

In a visit to Iran Thursday, Syria’s deputy prime minister, Omar Ibrahim Ghalawanji, evoked a strong pledge of support from the country’s remaining ally in the Middle East, Iran.

“Tehran is ready to give its experience and capabilities to its friend and brother nation of Syria,” said Iran’s vice president in charge of international affairs, Ali Saeedlou, according to the state news agency. He did not elaborate.