By Daniel DePetris, Special to CNN
Daniel R. DePetris is the senior associate editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis. The views expressed are his own.
With insurgents from the Free Syrian Army making inroads into areas that were once regarded firm bases of regime support, states backing the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appear to be accelerating efforts to forge an alternative leadership with the potential to take over once the uprising is done.
This task has taken on even greater urgency as more Syrian diplomats defect from the al-Assad regime, and as the Syrian National Council struggles to figure out how a post-al-Assad Syria should be governed. With European diplomats seemingly giving up on the SNC as a force with the potential to serve as an interim government in the event of al-Assad’s fall, the United States, Europe, and Arab states appear to be searching for viable alternatives.
To date, this search has been agonizingly slow, in part because of the opposition’s failure to unify, but also because of the al-Assad regime’s stubborn internal strength. Indeed, even in the face of an armed insurgency that stretches back into early last year, the Syrian Government has managed to retain the majority of its senior diplomats. The reality is that Syria is very different from the case of Libya, when a sizeable chunk of Moammar Gadhafi’s diplomatic corps broke away shortly into the uprising, ultimately helped form the Transitional National Council that would eventually lead the country. As Fareed Zakaria noted last month, meanwhile, the West is finding it difficult to secure reliable information even on who exactly the Syrian opposition really is.
These challenges and intelligence shortfalls inside Syria are producing a collective sense of concern among Western and Arab officials worried about the potential chaos that could ensue if al-Assad falls. But one figure appears to have gained the attention of outside powers as a potential figure to lead a post-Assad Syria – Manaf Tlas.
Brigadier General Tlas was the first Republican Guard commander to quit al-Assad’s regime, in early July, a defection that made headlines around the world, and one which was seen by some as a potential game changer.
And, safe in exile, Tlas seems to have gotten the message. After staying silent for weeks after his escape, he has now issued a statement appealing for all Syrians to live as Syrians rather than Sunnis, Alawites, or Christians. Tlas blasted the Syrian government for its violent response to peaceful democratic protest, calling for a democratic and pluralistic Syria without the shedding of more blood. He also volunteered to help the opposition, both inside and outside of Syria, strengthen and unite.
For the United States, Britain, France, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, Tlas may very well be viewed as a legitimate figure for a post-al-Assad transition – a Sunni whose experience in the armed forces could be crucial in preventing the disintegration of the Syrian military.
But for millions of Syrians, Tlas’s credentials as a freedom fighter are mixed at best. Leaders in the Syrian National Council, for example, have been quick to note that it took Tlas more than a year to part ways with al-Assad and his regime – far too long for many of those that have been protesting since last March.
And there’s also the matter of his family’s ties to the al-Assads. Tlas’s father, Mustafa Tlas, was intimately woven into the inner circle of Assad’s father, serving as defense minister for more than thirty years. The elder Tlas has also been accused of solidly backing al-Assad during his accession – a toxic allegation that if true would raise questions about the Tlas family’s willingness to break with the al-Assad legacy.
Tlas’s younger brother, Firas, has also allegedly profited from the al-Assad regime through a variety of business deals, some of which are said to be tied to the Syrian military. Senior members of the SNC are therefore believed to be adamantly opposed to any transitional role for Manaf.
And yet as of now, despite his potential shortcomings, Tlas is better placed than anyone who has broken ranks with al-Assad to offer insights into the regime and the running of the military. Unless the SNC can pull together and develop a realistic blueprint for a unified Syria, the West and other outsiders might feel no choice but to lend their support to Manaf Tlas.