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Thursday
Jul262012

Syria Feature: US Promoting General Tlass as "Transitional Leader"? (Solomon/Dagher)

Manaf TlassUS officials and their partners put out an interesting line --- strategy or trial balloon? --- via Jay Soloman and Sam Dagher of The Wall Street Journal: General Manaf Tlass, the commander who defected last month, could be proposed as the new transitional leader to "galvanise the opposition":

The Obama administration and officials of some Arab and Western nations are discussing ways to place Syria's highest-ranking military defector at the center of a political transition in the Arab state, according to U.S. and Middle East officials.

The focus on Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a childhood friend of President Bashar al-Assad, is increasing as hopes fade for prospects that an umbrella resistance group, the Syrian National Council, can galvanize the opposition, the officials said.

Efforts to find a transitional figure who is palatable to the Assad regime's Russian backers and leading Arab states, as well as to the opposition, have taken on added urgency as rebel fighters make gains in major Syrian cities and more high-level officials defect, the officials said.

The officials said Gen. Tlass is one of the few figures in opposition to the regime who could potentially help restore order in Damascus and secure Syria's vast chemical-weapons stockpile.

Gen. Tlass was a commander in Syria's elite Republican Guard before his July 6 defection, and his father served as defense minister under Mr. Assad's late father, Hafez al-Assad, for 30 years.

He is also, unlike the Assad clan, a Sunni Muslim—which Western officials hope could make him acceptable as a transitional figure to the country's rebel fighters and opposition leaders, who are also largely from the Sunni sect of Islam.

"It's too early to say if Tlass will stand the strain and pick up traction or just fade away," a senior U.S. defense official said. "The next week or two will reveal his credentials and attractiveness to the various components internally and internationally."

But the focus on Gen. Tlass also underscores the dearth of figures who can present a viable alternative to Mr. Assad. Many in the opposition consider Gen. Tlass and his family too closely tied to the Assads' repression and corruption to be acceptable to Syrians. They also question his ability to win over members of Mr. Assad's Alawite sect, which makes up 12% of Syria's population and appears largely unified behind the regime.

"Someone like Tlass is difficult to sell to the Syrian people," said Ammar Abdulhamid, an anti-Assad activist based in Washington. "He certainly can't play any leading role in a transition."

The relative lack of Western options became clear this week, when the European Union's foreign ministers shifted from its longtime support of the Syrian National Council, a largely émigré group that Brussels had made an official interlocutor in early 2012. On Monday, EU foreign ministers dropped all reference to the group in its statement on Syria.

A turning point came at the Paris meeting of the Friends of Syria on July 6, a senior European diplomat said, when the SNC seemed to have no response to the EU's calls for it to broaden its political base. They "just don't seem to be making progress on this," the diplomat said.

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