Syria's most prominent military defector says the key to political transition there is to provide a "safety net" that persuades Alawites they won't be massacred if they break with President Bashar al-Assad.
"My main work is to convince the Alawites that they do not have to commit suicide along with the regime, said Manaf Tlass, a former general in the Syrian army who left the country in July. He spoke Tuesday at a location in France where he has taken refuge. It was his first in-depth interview since he broke with Assad, who was once his close friend.
Tlass said that before there can be a political transition, there must first be a channel of trust between the opposition Free Syrian Army and reconcilable members of the military who are ready to break with Assad, much as Tlass did. Without such links, he said, Assad's overthrow would plunge the country into a period of anarchic violence and Syria's chemical weapons would be up for grabs.
"Today, many Alawites are not happy with what's happening on the ground, but where is the safe zone for them?" he said. "Alawites need to know that there's a strong side that will guarantee their safety if they defect."
Though Tlass is a Sunni Muslim, he commanded a unit of the Special Republican Guard, which is about 80 percent Alawite, the ethnic minority from which Assad and his inner circle are drawn.
Tlass, 49, spoke movingly about his break from Assad, who, he said, has so bloodied his name that he will never be able to rule Syria effectively again. It began in the spring of 2011, when protests were spreading and Tlass offered to meet with demonstrators. He told Assad about an April 2011 meeting in Darayya with young rebels, whose fathers were silent but obviously proud. "This is the revolution of the fathers through their children," Tlass warned, noting that such a conflict would be impossible to win by force.
Assad was a changeable, uncertain man, increasingly swayed by the harder line of his family, especially his brother Maher and his cousin Hafez Makhlouf, who heads the internal branch of Syrian intelligence. "If you impose power, people will be afraid, and they will step back," Makhlouf admonished Tlass.
Tlass says that by May 2011, his counsel of outreach was ignored and his contacts were being arrested after he met them. This was the case even in Rastan, a town in central Syria where his father was born. After Tlass tried to make peace there, he was scolded by Makhlouf. Tlass stopped commanding his army unit after that.
The rupture came in July 2011, when Assad summoned him and asked why he wasn't leading his troops. Tlass said he responded that the president and his men weren't sincere about compromise.
"You are making me a liar. You and Syria are committing suicide," he recalls saying. Assad responded that such counsel was "too simple," and that he was moving to the "security option."
"You are carrying a heavy load - and if you want to fly, you have to drop that load," Tlass says he told Assad at that last meeting. "But it seems the heavy load - the family, the inner circle - has won."
Tlass says he thought at first that he could stay in Damascus, in silent opposition to the hard-liners' policies. But as the violence increased to countrywide slaughter, he says, "my conscience could not bear it anymore." He began thinking about how to flee by the end of last year.
The former general still has the rugged good looks that made him a charismatic military leader, which has led some to speculate that he might play a role in a Syrian transition. But Tlass says he doesn't want any position in a future government, and is focused only on his "road map" for avoiding sectarian strife. He's probably wise to disavow political ambition, as his wealth, secular lifestyle and prominent background (his father was defense minister) make him a target for a populist, Islamist opposition movement.
I first met Tlass a half-dozen years ago in Damascus, which may be one reason he decided to speak out and give the interview. When I asked him what he would say to Assad if he could send him one more message, he was overcome by emotion for a moment and left the room. When he returned, he said: "How can anyone think he is protecting his country when his air force and tanks are hitting his own territory?"