Top Syrian general defects 0
A reproduction of an undated file picture shows top Syrian General Manaf Tlas smoking a cigar in an undisclosed location. (AFP File Photo/STR)
The defection of a Syrian general who is a personal friend of President Bashar al-Assad gave a huge boost to anti-government rebels as Western and Arab states met them in Paris on Friday to help prise Assad from power.
In some of the strongest U.S. remarks yet on a crisis that has divided the United Nations Security Council along Cold War lines, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Paris conference that Russia and China must “pay a price” for blocking U.N. sanctions that might press Assad into stepping down.
As she spoke, Manaf Tlas, a brigade commander in the Republican Guard who attended military college with Assad and fled to Turkey this week, was on his way to Paris, where his father, Assad’s father’s defence minister, has also taken up residence, a close family friend told Reuters.
There was no immediate sign that Tlas would throw in his lot with the rebels and an opposition source said he had no plans to attend Friday’s meeting.
But his defection is the clearest signal yet that some in Assad’s inner circle think his days in power are numbered, as an uprising that began in March 2011 with a groundswell of peaceful protest turns into a civil war with strong sectarian overtones.
While the lightly armed rebels are no match for Syria’s large and well-equipped army, their hope lies in eroding loyalty and conviction within Assad’s establishment to the point where it loses its hold on power.
Syrian armour pushed into the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun on Thursday, activists said, adding 11 victims to a death toll dissidents and Western leaders put at over 15,000.
French President Francois Hollande urged stiffer sanctions against Assad and more support for the rebels at the start of a meeting of Western and Arab states who back the uprising.
“Bashar al-Assad must go,” Hollande told a meeting of foreign ministers and senior diplomats from the “Friends of Syria” group. “It’s in the interest of Syria, of its neighbours and everybody who wants peace in the region.”
Clinton renewed Washington’s call for a U.N. sanctions resolution, something that was twice blocked last year by the veto power held by Moscow and Beijing in the Security Council.
And she called for states to penalize Russia and China:
“I will tell you very frankly, I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all - nothing at all - for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime,” Clinton said.
“The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price, because they are holding up progress - blockading it. That is no longer tolerable.”
Completing the trio of Western veto-holding powers on the Council, Foreign Secretary William Hague for Britain told the conference that counties which failed to impose sanctions were allowing Assad’s forces to go on killing.
The Paris meeting will, among other things, focus on firming up sanctions and closing loopholes such as continued Greek purchases of Syrian phosphates, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the newspaper Aujourd’hui en France.
Tlas, whose father Mustafa was defence minister under Assad’s father for three decades, is a Sunni Muslim, from the majority community that has been the focus of the uprising against a ruling class rooted in Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Opposition activists said Tlas would announce that he had abandoned Assad because of anger at civilian deaths. A witness in Damascus said by phone that Tlas’s house in Damascus had been ransacked by security agents after reports that he had fled.
Western governments, which are keen to bring down Assad but have shown no appetite for direct intervention like the NATO bombing that helped oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi last year, will relish the sign of a split among Assad’s confidants.
“His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating,” said a Western diplomat who knew Tlas in Damascus. “Manaf does not give the impression that he is a big thug, but he mattered in the military.”
In Washington, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said: “General Tlas is a big name and his apparent decision to ditch Assad hurts, even though it probably didn’t come as a surprise.
“Tlas lately seems to have been on the outs, but he’s got charisma and some smarts. If he joins the insurgents that could be significant.“
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, Syria’s NATO-member neighbour which has become Assad’s most outspoken foe, said defections proved that the Syrian government is crumbling.
“There are soldiers escaping, they are reporting to us that they are being instructed to attack people, and because of that they had to escape in order not to kill civilians,“ he told France 24 television.
“Every day, generals, colonels, officers are coming, and we have, I think, around 20 generals and maybe 100 high-ranking officers, colonels.“
Turkey has moved artillery and troops towards its border with Syria in the two weeks since Syria shot down a Turkish warplane at the frontier. Turkey now says it will treat Syrian units that approach the border as hostile.
With heavy fighting now reaching the outskirts of the capital, events on the ground are outrunning the stalled efforts of diplomats from major powers.
A peace plan proposed by international envoy Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, has proved a dead letter, with his proposed ceasefire ignored and a small, unarmed U.N. monitoring team forced to suspend its work.
RUSSIA AND CHINA ABSENT
Clinton and Hague were among the 50 foreign ministers and delegates meeting in Paris. But Russia and China stayed away for a meeting they say is one-sided, and Assad’s main regional ally Iran was not invited.
Senior U.S. officials said they hoped the talks would endorse transition planning by the Syrian opposition and lead to U.N. Security Council discussions as early as next week on economic sanctions against Assad’s government.
But there was no sign that Russia and China would agree to such a resolution, let alone one that invoked Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which can potentially authorize use of force.
When Russian and Chinese delegates attended a broader meeting in Geneva last Saturday, they blocked language calling for Assad to step down. They have repeatedly blocked such language in U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“What form will that pressure take? We - and we believe most of the countries that’ll be represented in Paris - think that has to include Chapter VII economic sanctions on Assad,“ a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters.
“That is the argument that we will continue to make to Russia and China,“ said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. France has already said Chapter VII must be invoked.
A senior French diplomat said recent rebel territorial gains had led to signs that even Moscow was now envisaging a post-Assad Syria, something Russian officials strongly deny.
“The situation on the ground has changed fast over the past three weeks, with security forces having no access to some areas,“ the French diplomat said. “We are now hearing things from within political and military circles in Russia that are surprising us and that we were not hearing before.“
Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to fund and arm the rebels, but Western powers have misgivings about sending more weapons into what could become a wider sectarian conflict.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani called in Paris for the Security Council to be sidestepped.
“Are we able to do something outside the Security Council? Yes. Have we done things outside the Security Council in the past? Yes, and there are many examples ...
“We are ready to take part in any effort of any kind to free the Syrian people of this tragedy they are in.”