By JIM GARAMONE
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON – Pentagon officials called the defection of Syrian Army Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass “significant,” saying this could be the first crack in the inner circle around Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Tlass sought asylum in Turkey, said Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby.
“He is a former friend of Assad, so we don’t believe this defection should be taken lightly,” Kirby said. “It’s another example of a senior member in the Syrian army that has decided to turn against the Syrian regime and to stop committing violent acts against its people.”
Tlass is the son of former Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass, according to U.S. officials. The elder Tlass served in the position from 1972 to 2004 and helped the Assad family set up the repressive regime in Syria.
This defection is considered different from those that have occurred previously, U.S. officials said, noting Tlass is a general officer who had a long, personal, close association with the Assad family.
U.S. officials hope this latest defection will lead to more from the regime’s inner circle. “I’d be hard-pressed to say that the regime is about to crack under the weight of defections,” Kirby said.
The Syrian regime is murdering its own people and Bashar Assad has not indicated any desire to relinquish power, officials said.
“He has loyalists still around him and certainly the vast majority of the Syrian military is still following his orders,” Kirby said. “The international community remains firm about the need for him to step down and stop killing his people.”
The United States, officials said, is concerned about reports that al-Qaida is taking advantage of the chaos in Syria to launch attacks and establish a presence in the country. Iraqi officials, they said, claim al-Qaida terrorists are moving from Iraq to Syria to launch attacks.
Kirby said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is concerned about such reports.
“The secretary has been on the record expressing concern about the potential for al-Qaida migrating in to Syria, and we have seen indications that they have wanted to do that,” Kirby said. “This obviously won’t do anything to stabilize the situation in Syria.”