BEIRUT – Violence in Syria has surged to an “unprecedented level,” the chief of the U.N. observer mission said Wednesday, as reports surfaced of the most high-profile defection to date from the security forces of President Bashar Assad.
Gen. Robert Mood, who heads the U.N. observer team in Syria, painted a grim picture of a nation where both sides in the escalating conflict seem determined to use force and evince little appetite for compromise or dialogue.
“The violence is continuing and escalating because the parties involved have decided that their objectives are better served by using violence than by choosing a political process,” Mood told reporters in Damascus, the Syrian capital. “It is not possible to sit down and have a dialogue in the middle of this kind of violence.”
The comments from the Norwegian general are the latest indication that the situation in Syria is spiraling toward all-out civil war – with ominous sectarian undercurrents.
The U.N.’s unarmed observers – whose task was to monitor a cease-fire that never took hold – have been largely confined to their compounds in recent weeks because of the danger in the field.
Meanwhile, multiple reports were circulating Wednesday that a high-ranking military commander and longtime Assad associate had left Syria and had defected to the opposition.
There was no official confirmation, but the reported defection of Manaf Tlas, a brigadier in Syria’s Republican Guard, would likely count as the most significant defection to date from the Assad government.
Tlas is the son of Mustapha Tlas, a former defense minister and longtime intimate of the late Hafez Assad, who seized power in 1970, beginning the Assad family dynasty that is now facing its sternest challenge.
Reuters news service quoted rebel sources as saying the younger Tlas had left Damascus, and it also cited confirmation from a pro-Assad security website asserting that Tlas had deserted.
The younger Tlas was said to have commanded a brigade of the Republican Guard, regarded as intensely loyal to Assad and headed by Assad’s brother, Maher. Maher Assad is widely regarded as among the key figures behind the bloody crackdown on dissent that has now morphed into a counterinsurgency battle against dozens of rebel militias.
The Tlas family’s background is significant as the conflict in Syria veers toward a sectarian showdown. The Tlas clan is part of the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority, yet father and son held prominent roles in a security apparatus dominated by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The almost 16-month rebellion has risen from the ranks of the nation’s Sunni masses, who have long chafed at Alawite rule.
The defection of Tlas, if true, “could be a sign that Sunnis are beginning to break with the regime after years of being co-opted,” wrote Andrew J. Tabler and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
With Alawites making up an estimated 12 percent of the Syrian population, successive Assad administrations have relied on some senior Sunni officers, like Tlas and his father, in some important security posts.