"Manaf Tlass—Our Man In Syria"

Posted: August 6, 2012

Until a few weeks ago, although he had the rank of brigadier general in the Syrian army, 48-year-old Manaf Tlass was better known as an aging member of the jeunesse dorée in Damascus: the playboy son of an eccentric former defense minister, a buddy of President Bashar al-Assad, and the brother of Nahed Ojjeh, née Tlass, an influential hostess in Paris with one of the most controversial histories of reputed amours, which, in France, is saying something.

Manaf himself is, no doubt about it, a handsome devil. Those of us who were invited to tea with him and his siblings at his father’s house years ago still remember his languorous eyes and the thick black hair that is, today, a rakish mop of premature gray. But no Syrian would have picked Manaf then, or since, as a potential leader of his country—much less someone who could guide the nation out of war to a new democratic future, as he now claims he wants to do.

“He’s not a big brain,” says a prominent member of the Syrian National Council, a largely civilian exile group. Other more senior military officers who’ve taken up arms against the regime are not so kind: “We believe he is the hidden shadow of Bashar al-Assad,” says one. “And maybe he is gay!” chimes in another, intending the remark as a gratuitous insult.

Yet Tlass has emerged in several recent headlines, from Saudi satellite television to The Wall Street Journal as the great tousled hope for the Syrian revolution, or, perhaps more accurately, for a way out of it. And his story reveals a lot about the desperation of the regional and Western powers who are trying to contain the widening civil war—even as they step up covert efforts to overthrow the regime. The resignation of Kofi Annan as the United Nations and Arab League special peace envoy to Syria underscores the collapse of diplomatic efforts to end the fighting—at least for now. Yet paradoxically, that may actually increase the importance of Manaf Tlass as a sort of an odds-against, go-for-broke peacemaker.

“The big question is who’s going to move the center of the country,” says James Prince of the Los Angeles–based Democracy Council. Furthermore, who can reassure the minorities that they won’t be persecuted? This goes not only for the Alawites that have been the core support of the Assad dictatorship, but also the Christians and Sunni businessmen who prospered under the regime. Iran, presumably, will back Assad until his bloody end. But might the Russians pull the plug on him if another interlocutor would guarantee their interests? Tlass, in opaque but suggestive language, has presented himself as the man who would try.

“Syria is a country that accommodates different minorities and ethnic groups, a country with various national identities that require a safe space to treat the wounds they have suffered as part of this crisis,” Tlass told the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Alawsat in late July.

“I think you need to take him seriously,” says Prince. “Does he have a constituency inside? Yes. Will the opposition follow a Manaf-led government? That’s a huge challenge.”

A closer look at the man, his relatives, and the world of mafialike intrigues in which the Tlass family prospered until recently suggests a very complicated mix of motives and connections.

When Manaf Tlass was growing up, his was a very small and very special circle of friends whose fathers conspired successfully with then–defense minister Hafez al-Assad to seize power in the name of the Baath Party. Assad represented the interests of the Alawites, his sect, which had often been persecuted as heretical by the Sunni Muslim majority in the country. But Assad was also careful to include some Sunnis among his key cronies: men like Manaf’s father, Mustafa Tlass, who would serve for decades as minister of defense; and Abdel Khalim Khaddam, who would become vice president. As the country’s key arms purchaser, Defense Minister Tlass grew very rich and very close to the Russians, who supplied the country’s weaponry. But the Tlasses were not viewed with a great deal of respect among the Damascene power elite. Old man Tlass was widely seen as a skirt chaser when he was younger, and something of a buffoon as he grew old. One of his favorite gifts to women he wanted to impress was an elaborately wrought ceremonial sword. Among the recipients: sex symbol Gina Lollobrigida—and the late Katharine Graham, owner of The Washington Post. (Graham was completely flustered by the gift, and left it in her hotel room when she flew out of Damascus.)

At the time of the coup, Manaf Tlass was 6 years old, and the Syrian capital was a city with a glorious past but a very parochial present. “There was only one swimming pool in Damascus. It belonged to the municipality, and we would all go to swim and make friends,” remembers one of his playmates from those days.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hafez al-Assad consolidated his dictatorship through terror and intimidation. He lost a war against Israel in 1973, then had his air force all but destroyed when he sent it up against Israeli jets over Lebanon in 1982. But still he held on to power, and Mustafa Tlass held onto the defense ministry. In 1981, they faced a growing insurgency led by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Manaf was in his teens when the Brotherhood bombed a defense-ministry building in the Damascus neighborhood of Ezbekieh, killing 500 people, more than 100 of them senior military officers, several of whom were close to his father. The next year, when the Brotherhood decided to make a stand in the city of Hama, Assad’s forces leveled whole neighborhoods, killing at least 10,000 people and setting the precedent for Syrian government tactics fighting the insurgency today. At the time, among the threatened elite around Assad, no tears were shed. Again and again the wily Syrian president’s combination of ferocity and patience paid off. In a campaign of terrorist attrition, allied with Iran and Hizbullah, he not only won control of Lebanon, but was thanked by the international community for ending its civil war.

The eldest of Assad’s three sons, Basel, emerged in the late 1980s as the dictator’s heir apparent. Basel was handsome and smart, ruthless and reckless. Posters all over Syria and in Syrian-occupied Lebanon pictured him in aviator sunglasses and a crisp uniform. Like a movie star he had an entourage, and fellow party animal Manaf Tlass was among those he kept closest to him. “Manaf became like a secretary to Basel,” says his childhood buddy. “He was always like his shadow.”

But in January 1994, at the height of the family’s fortunes, 31-year-old Basel crashed his Mercedes while speeding to the airport in the dark. His younger brother, Bashar al-Assad, who was studying ophthalmology in London at the time, was summoned back to take up duties as crown prince of the dictatorship. Ungainly, unmilitary, unsexy—Bashar had none of Basel’s charisma, but he kept some of Basel’s entourage, including Manaf.

Basel and Bashar may have found Manaf Tlass an easy companion, but he secretly loathed them, according to another member of that circle. “They don’t have any real friends,” young Tlass told his buddy. “They have people around to serve them.” And as his childhood friend sees it, “this created hatred inside Manaf, because he felt they didn’t take him for a friend, they took him for a servant.”

Manaf’s older brother, Firas, was doing business with the regime, wheeling and dealing all over the Middle East, but at a little distance. His older sister, Nahed, meanwhile, had built quite an empire of her own on the Parisian social scene. But Manaf was still in Damascus. And he partied on. He “liked to show off,” remembers his childhood friend, and few who met him failed to note his passion for fine Cuban cigars.

When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and Bashar took over as president, Manaf’s friend remembers going out to dinner with him and hearing how unhappy he was. He also remembers being cautioned by Manaf not to speak too loudly about his own contempt for the new president. Among the old entourage, loathing was turning to fear.

The Assads’ family intrigues grew ever more dangerous. As Bashar struggled to consolidate his hold on the country, he found that he had to depend on relatives even more ruthless than he: among them his hot-tempered younger brother, Maher, and his sister’s Machiavellian husband, Assef Shawkat. Under pressure, the regime was turning in on itself. In 1999, Maher shot Shawkat in the gut. After Lebanon’s billionaire former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was blown up in Beirut in 2005, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and much of the international community accused the Assads. “The regime became increasingly a family business, relying on Alawite more than military loyalty, relying more on the shabiha [Alawite paramilitaries] than on the regular army,” says Bassma Kodmani, director of the Arab Reform Initiative and, until recently, head of foreign relations for the exile leadership of the Syrian National Council.

The shock waves from the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt hit Syria at a moment when the Assad clique was already shaky, paranoid, and suspicious. Loyalty was constantly being tested, and that of Manaf Tlass became suspect. In late June, he was asked to suppress an uprising in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, and tried to talk the people down. He failed.

“He was dismissed, and the regime promoted his assistant,” says Gen. Anwar Saadeddine, who defected to the opposition a few weeks ago. “His assistant repressed the protests brutally, bloodily: 200 people were killed, and about 20 to 25 women were raped in front of their families. And about five local hospitals for the opposition were completely destroyed.”

One of the first towns to rise up against Assad was Al-Rastan, where the Tlass family has its roots. Over the years, many young men had been channeled from there into the Syrian armed forces. By last summer, hundreds of those soldiers were joining the revolution. According to several sources, Manaf Tlass was told he had to lead the attack on Rastan. He refused, and Rastan remains a center of well-trained military resistance.

“The Assads’ strategy was to involve everyone in their crimes,” says Kodmani. But Tlass, by his own account—and others’—did not take part. “My hands are not stained with blood,” Tlass told a Saudi reporter. He claims that in effect he defected then, early in the uprising, even if he did not go public. “He was demoted, he was frozen out,” says Saadeddine. He started plotting to get out.

Fortunately for Manaf and his family, his sister had been laying the groundwork for a golden exile for a very long time.

When Nahed Tlass was 18 years old, in 1978, she married one of the richest arms dealers in the Middle East, the Syrian- born Saudi Akram Ojjeh, who was then 60 years old. When he died 13 years later, he left her fabulously rich and residing in one of the great private palaces of Paris.

“She used her wealth, basically, to create a salon Parisien, and she was this electrifying lady at the center of it,” says Kodmani, who has known Nahed for years. Even the staid Le Monde newspaper would write of the fabulous dinners at the opulent residences of “Madame O.” A prominent scholar asked to supervise her dissertation in the 1990s remembers her showing up at his academic office, stripping off her fur coat to reveal a very short miniskirt, then doing “this Basic Instinct kind of thing,” crossing and uncrossing her legs. Among the men to whom her name was linked over the years: a powerful foreign minister, a leading industrialist, and one of the country’s most prominent journalists. So when it came time for Nahed’s brother to get the hell out of Damascus, her French connections proved to be life savers. “She arranged the whole thing,” says Kodmani.

These associations may or may not prove useful again to Manaf. But the larger question remains: what does Manaf Tlass have left to offer his country, or his supporters outside of it? He has given only one statement, to the Saudi-owned satellite news network Al-Arabiya, and one interview, to the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Alawsat. So there is little question that Riyadh thinks he’s got the X factor it’s looking for in the Syrian opposition. But is he reading from his own script, or theirs? And does he offer an alternative to Assad, or only an imitation?

During the first months of the Syrian uprising, Washington hoped that Bashar al-Assad himself could be the transitional figure by dumping some of his relatives and cronies, and carrying out long neglected promises of democratization.

“Bashar was given every chance by the international community and more importantly by his own people, to lead the reforms,” says Edward Djerejian, founder of Rice University’s Baker Institute, and a former U.S. ambassador to Damascus. “Washington, Paris, Saudi Arabia, Qatar—everyone gave him a pass to do the right thing.” But Bashar al-Assad is “a brutally weak leader,” Djerejian says, and rather than commit to a genuine opening or to cleaning up the savage security forces that surround him, he was persuaded by regime thugs that the only way to survive was through ruthless repression.

“There should have been a coup at the beginning of the crisis, and I had hoped that the president [Bashar al-Assad] himself would have carried it out, namely a coup in favor of a political solution, citizens, and reform,” Tlass told the Saudi newspaper. As he knows, the widening combat makes any effort at reconciliation ever more difficult. “The longer the crisis lasts, the longer it will take Syria to recover,” he said in his one interview.

Since the international community gave up on Assad, it’s easy to understand why some turned to Manaf Tlass as an alternative. But he was the last hope for what may well be a lost hope. And whether he can step out of Assad’s shadow now remains to be seen.

By Christopher Dickey