Asharq Al-Awsat talks to General Manaf Tlass
Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat – After much hesitation and silence, Brigadier General Manaf Tlass agreed to speak with Asharq Al-Awsat about his relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his defection from the Syrian regime, the situation in Syria today, his view for the future of the country and whether he is looking to play a role in it. The interview with Brigadier General Manaf Tlass took place in the city of Jeddah on the west coast of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Tlass is in Saudi Arabia to perform the umrah [pilgrimage] and conducted this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The manner in which you left Syria is shrouded in secrecy; can you tell us what exactly happened?
[Tlass] The departure process was very complicated and took a lot of time. A number of parties were involved and this took quite a long time, but I will not reveal exactly how I was able to leave.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this in order to protect those who helped you?
[Tlass] That’s right.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us if you left via Damascus airport, or via an airport in Turkey or Beirut?
[Tlass] I cannot reveal the location for fear that certain parties will be held accountable, or that this will reveal who was involved or the manner in which this took place. For my part, I will remain silent, and perhaps in the future I will reveal how I was able to leave Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You did not announce your defection from the al-Assad regime immediately, like others who have defected. Why did you hesitate?
[Tlass] I did not hesitate, for I have had differences with the regime since the beginning of the crisis regarding its handling of this. I kept to myself for a period of time and there were many mistakes in the manner that the crisis was being handled. I had no involvement or decision in this, and that is why I preferred to leave. I did not try to be a party to the handling of the crisis at the beginning because I did not agree with this, and because I did not want to be part of one side against another. All parties should have been provided with assistance in order to get out of the crisis, and that is the reason why I did not announce my defection.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was your departure part of plans for the transitional process in Syria, namely that you could be assigned the task of governing the country in the post-Assad period, as is being reported by some parties?
[Tlass] I am not looking for power; I am looking for security and stability for Syria, and if I have the opportunity to participate – as any ordinary Syrian citizen – in rebuilding Syria, then I am ready. However I am not looking for power, and I did not leave Syria in order to lead the transitional period. I am aware that this will be a difficult period, and it would be very difficult for any single individual to shoulder this responsibility during this period. Therefore what should happen is that a team comprising internal and external [Syrian] figures should be formed to cooperate to achieve this [transitional] period. As for myself, I did not leave Syria seeking to obtain any role; I left because I refused to participate in the security solution…that is the main reason for my leaving Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When did you last meet with Bashar al-Assad?
[Tlass] Approximately one year ago.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you spoken with him about his handling of the Syrian crisis, or any related issue?
[Tlass] No, we did not have any conversations in this regard, but I did oppose the security apparatus’s vision for dealing with the crisis. I tried to resolve this in a peaceful manner, but I saw that there were plans for the security solution, so I withdrew from these attempts. This is because I believe the crisis is complex and needs to be addressed in a genuine and correct manner. However I discovered that this [popular] movement was escalating, and was only being addressed through one mechanism, namely the mechanism of arms, which is something that I reject. There were those who were in need of dialogue, and in need of the regime listening to them, but it did not listen to them. I was among those who preferred to conduct dialogue with the [popular] movement, and so I isolated myself…from the management of this crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It’s common knowledge that you were a childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad, so how can it be possible that you did not advise him – directly or via intermediaries – that resorting to the security solution was a mistake?
[Tlass] I did put forward such views; however there were difficulties regarding the political issues. As you know, in friendship you can advise a friend a number of times and then find that you have no influence, and so you decide to distance yourself in the hope that this may have some kind of impact. I tried hard – no more and no less – but there was another camp that was working in the opposite direction. I wish he [Bashar al-Assad] had listened to me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe precisely how the government operates in Syria, particularly since the outbreak of the revolution?
[Tlass] There are security agencies that receive reports from where the [popular] movement is taking place, and they take action to address this utilizing security mechanisms, having no other alternative. I would prefer this be treated via the political process, without resorting to the security solution. Therefore, since the beginning this was being addressed via comprehensive security mechanisms. I was well aware that getting involved in the security solution, and then withdrawing from this, would be very costly and represent a huge loss, and that is why I viewed the security solution as the regime committing suicide. As I said, getting out of this security solution will be truly disastrous, for the number of victims is rising day after day, which means that it also becomes increasingly difficult, day after day, to achieve reconciliation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why have none of the politicians in Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle defected?
[Tlass] We are not in need of looking for more defectors, whether senior officers or ministers. Rather, we need to address the crisis that has reached an extremely dangerous phase in Syria, as it is moving in directions that cancel each other out. Therefore what is required now is not more defections, rather re-drawing the new Syria. What is important is that we find a way to reach a solution to protect the homeland from division and sectarian fighting; this is what we must seek by any and all means.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think there is any possibility of a solution whilst al-Assad remains in power?
[Tlass] The possibilities have become very difficult. For him to remainin power after this huge death toll means that the chances [for a solution] are weak.
I wish he had not acted in this way, and he could have remained in power, but the security apparatus confused him. And mistakes in political are sometimes lethal.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your view regarding the bombing that targeted the national security headquarters in Damascus, killing four senior al-Assad regime officials?
[Tlass] This was a large security breach, and the regime must contemplate this and rethink the course it is taking because these areas, such as where the explosion took place, are difficult to penetrate. This, therefore, indicates that the [popular] movement has become very sophisticated, and the regime must contemplate this and listen to the echoes of this movement. If it fails to do so, this will be a disaster for the regime as a whole.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any information about Maher al-Assad? Was he present at this meeting?
[Tlass] I do not think Maher al-Assad is this circle to have attended that meeting, for his [military] rank does not enable him to do so.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] General Tlass, is there anything in your previous career that you are ashamed of? Are your hands stained with blood?
[Tlass] No, I declined to participate since the beginning of the crisis, specifically from the moment that the manner in which this was being addressed turned to violence. My hands are not stained with blood, and I do not accept history recording that my hands have ever been stained with blood. I hold myself accountable to myself before history can hold me accountable, and I do not care about power or position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think it would be impossible for a military coup to take place in Syria?
[Tlass] It would be very difficult for there to be a coup in Syria because the regime enjoys a special setup and systematic mechanism that makes the proposition of an internal coup extremely difficult. However 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 the political solution, [Syrian] citizens and reform.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us the extent of the support that al-Assad is receiving from Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and the Russians?
[Tlass] It is difficult to determine this matter because it is subject to national issues and interests, therefore it is difficult to determine the size of the aid [that al-Assad is receiving]. However we must look at the interests of each state and its ties to other states, as well as the extent of the impact of such interests.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are Iranian forces directly taking part in managing the Syrian crisis?
[Tlass] I have not seen anything, but I have heard this from some people. As for myself, I have not seen anyone because I was not among those who were managing the crisis, therefore I cannot answer.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Western states have repeatedly asserted that Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered. What do you think?
[Tlass] The only thing we hope for is salvation for Syria, without looking at the number of days, for it is not within my capability to say whether it will be days or months. However I hope that the Syrian crisis ends with minimal losses, and that the country can recover quickly. For the longer the crisis lasts, the longer it will take Syria to recover; therefore I cannot set a time-frame. This is something that depends on the developments on the ground, as well as international developments.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Based on your personal knowledge of Bashar al-Assad, do you think he will step down, or will he follow Gaddafi’s footsteps to the end?
[Tlass] I do not know how I can answer this question, for each individual is exposed to certain circumstances and responds to this according to his character. If I was subject to these circumstances, I would not have acted in this manner…but I cannot answer as to whether he [al-Assad] will step down or not.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Bashar al-Assad has been able to promote the view that he is surrounded by hawks, which has convinced many – including some in the West – that he is not solely running things in Damascus. Is al-Assad truly managing the crisis or not?
[Tlass] These are the decisions of the circle around him…
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about his role? Is he weak?
[Tlass] No, he is not weak, but there are those around him who have downplayed the magnitude of the crisis, and so he has preferred to deal with it via this [security] framework…
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You officially announced your defection from the al-Assad regime on Al-Arabiya TV. What are your plans now?
[Tlass] I announced my defection at the beginning of the crisis. I had defected from the regime whilst I was still in Syria, for it is not necessary for the defector to appear on television and officially announce his defection. Since the beginning of the crisis I have acted as an individual who defected from the regime, for the manner in which the regime addressed the crisis was against my convictions and desires. I could not deal with solutions that go against my convictions and desires, and that is why I defected from the regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your plans now?
[Tlass] My plan is to live in safety with my family and children, and this is something that I hope for all the Syrian people. If there was safety in Syria, and the Syrian people believed this, then I would be amongst the first people there, because I am a Syrian citizen, and I cannot accept being safe whilst my people are not. Therefore I hope safety is established in Syria and all the Syrian people are able to life in safety.
As for the political issue, and whether I will participate or not, when I left Syria it was not in my thinking to participate or engage with any political task, however if this serves my country, and serves security and stability in Syria, then it is possible that I will participate as an ordinary citizen, or as any individual who wants to resolve this crisis. There are patriots in Syria, and abroad, and we hope that there will be an agreed solution without destroying Syria. There are many noble people in Syria and abroad, and we hope that they develop a roadmap to safely exit this crisis, with minimal losses to the country. 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. I hope there will be real and noble national parties that will help in treating these wounds, and prevent Syria from this deterioration which is threatening its future. I hope that Syria follows a roadmap out of this crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you communicate with the opposition Syrian National Council [SNC] and Free Syrian Army [FSA]?
[Tlass] I will communicate with each noble party that wants to build Syria, whether the SNC or the FSA, whether at home or abroad, and even if they are part of the regime. I will communicate with all parties to find a roadmap out of this crisis, and nobody is exempt from communication. There are many people in the regime whose hands are not stained in blood, and who were not consulted [regarding the security solution], and they should not be marginalized, rather we must preserve our national institutions and the Syrian state. We will only refuse to deal with those who were part of the management of the crisis, as for the other noble Syrian citizens, they cannot be marginalized from Syrian society. We hope that this mosaic of Syrian society is part of the roadmap to return to drawing up Syria, in a civilized manner, as it was and even better than before.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are talking about a Syria without Bashar al-Assad?
[Tlass] I cannot see a Syria with Bashar al-Assad.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What contact have you had with the international community since leaving Syria?
[Tlass] I am looking, along with the noble people outside of Syria, to reach an agreed solution with the noble people inside the country. I departed to try – although I cannot say for certain that I will succeed – to help, as much as possible, in unifying the noble people inside and outside of Syria to develop a roadmap to get out of this crisis, whether I have a role in this or not. I am not looking for positions so much as saving Syria from this crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What can you tell us about your visit to Saudi Arabia?
[Tlass] I am very happy to be in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and am very glad to have been able to perform the umrah [pilgrimage]. Saudi Arabia is a friend to Syria, and one of the regime’s strategic mistakes was to lose this relationship with Saudi Arabia. I expect Saudi Arabia and Syria to always enjoy close relations because they share the same compass, whether in terms of faith or Arab nationalism. Therefore I came to Saudi Arabia to greet our Saudi brothers, and to see whether it is possible for them to help us in drawing up this roadmap, along with our other regional and international friends. We will deal with anybody who can help Syria with the crisis it is facing, let alone Saudi Arabia which is a sisterly state whose relationship we must preserve. This is because it is a state of principles and values, a state that has helped the Syrian people on a number of occasions, starting from the October  war, where it sent a number of troops, as well as economic aid. We hope that there will always be a close and friendly relationship between ourselves and our Saudi brothers.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, for giving me this opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia, as well as everything that he has provided to the Syrian people in terms of assistance and aid. This is something that demonstrates the generosity of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.