Syrian Clan’s Defection Strikes at Heart of Assad Regime
The Tlass family was a privileged linchpin of the Assad regime that bound ruling Alawites and the Sunni elite together in an alliance of self-interest.
The clan’s defection is likely to hasten the system’s collapse, but also intensify the sectarian nature of the escalating conflict.
The dramatic escape of Manaf Tlass, the younger of two powerful brothers and a Republican Guard general, has highlighted the rift with the regime, but the family has clearly planned its departure stealthily for months. The patriarch, Mustafa, a former defence minister and long-standing Assad family consiglieri, had left this year for France, ostensibly for medical treatment. The elder brother, Firas, a tycoon, had progressively moved his business to Dubai. Together, their break with the house of Assad is a blow to the heart of the regime.
“Mustafa was Hafez al-Assad’s Sunni insurance,” said Fabrice Balanche, a scholar on Syria at the University of Lyons. In return for his loyalty, Assad showered favours and patronage on the Tlass hometown of Rastan.
“[The defection] is big. This is the powerful Sunni family in the country,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who runs the website Syria Comment. “It signals the end of the Sunni-Alawite alliance which was the keystone of the regime. Since the beginning of the revolt, people have been waiting for the Sunni elite to defect, but it stayed a rebellion of the poor, angry, young men from the countryside. Now as the rebellion creeps into the big cities, it is becoming more a civil war along sectarian lines, Sunni versus Alawite.”