Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, the son of Syria’s former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, crossed the border into Turkey on Thursday in what appears to be the highest-profile and most embarrassing Syrian defection to date.
Tlass, who was said to be a childhood friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was the commander of the Syrian army's elite 105th Republican Guard division, and is the highest-ranking defector to abandon his post since the popular uprising began in Syria some 16 months ago.
Israel’s Channel 2 news reported that Mustafa Tlass, a former Syrian army chief of staff and defense minister under Assad's father Hafez al-Assad for more than 30 years, had also abandoned the Syrian president, though in a more discreet fashion. “He has [already] slipped quietly away to Paris,” Channel 2 reported.
A senior source from within the Syrian regime said on Thursday that Manaf Tlass, who lives in the city of Rastan near Homs, decided to defect after refusing to take part in the massive bombardments on rebel strongholds and civilians, which have resulted in thousands of casualties.
Arab media outlets reported that Tlass escaped to Turkey after Syrian intelligence learned that he had made contact with a family member, also a senior officer in the Syrian army, who had defected and was currently helping to lead the uprising against Assad.
"The defection of Gen. Tlass was expected in light of his connections with opposition forces in Homs and Rastan, and due to the fact that, as a result of such contact, he was summoned for questioning with the Syrian intelligence services," the senior Syrian security official told reporters.
The source added that Syria's intelligence services allowed Tlass to defect to Turkey, and that had his arrest been a priority he would have been detained. "It was possible to prevent Tlass from defecting to Turkey, but his escape from Syria is completely insignificant and therefore Syrian intelligence didn't act to bring him in," the source said.
In yet another embarrassing blow to Assad and his regime on Thursday, the whistle-blowing site WikiLeaks announced it was in the process of publishing material from 2.4 million Syrian emails, many of which it said came from official government accounts.
WikiLeaks' Sarah Harrison, speaking to journalists at London's Frontline Club, quoted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as saying that "the material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria's external opponents."
According to WikiLeaks, the so-called “Syria Files” show how the West and western countries "say one thing and do another" when it comes to dealing with the Assad regime.
According to the files already published by WikiLeaks, Italian defense giant Finmeccanica supplied communications equipment and expertise about helicopters to the Syrian regime, even after it began to violently repress peaceful protests.
The British Telegraph reported that the leaked documents appeared to show that Selex Elsag, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, was selling sophisticated radio communications equipment named Tetra, worth 40 million euros, to the Syrian police in May 2011, the same month that the European Union imposed an embargo on the regime, prohibiting the export of weapons and equipment that could be used for internal repression.
The Tetra radio equipment, including 500 hand-held VS3000 radios, was apparently destined for police deployed in a suburb of Damascus, the report said.
The Syrian regime, according to the report, later asked to be supplied encryption technology for the radio system, but Finmeccanica said it would have to refer the matter to the Italian government.
Channel 2 reported on Thursday night that Selex Elsag also has close business relations with Israel Railways and that the company has already begun to provide Israel Railways with infrastructure for its new smart ticketing system, which will be introduced to passengers in the near future.
Officials at Israel Railways confirmed the report, but noted that the deal with Selex Elsag was signed prior to the publication of its ties with the Assad regime. The officials also added that other companies were also providing Israel Railways with similar equipment.
Harrison said the WikiLeaks emails dated from August 2006 to March 2012 and originated from hundreds of different domains, including Syria's Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
Harrison said her group was "statistically confident" that the body of material was genuine.
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said he did not believe the disclosures would change anything.
"There is ample evidence about the exact violence that they are perpetrating against their own people," he told reporters. "So my initial reaction is that I am not sure that any additional internal correspondence will change our perspective."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, denied that his country was considering offering asylum to Assad.
Kommersant, the respected Russian daily newspaper, quoted diplomatic sources on Wednesday as saying that Western nations were pushing Moscow to provide asylum to Assad, but Lavrov emphasized that such a solution would not make sense because "Syrians themselves need to find common ground."