By Samia Nakhoul
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Manaf Tlas, a family friend of President Bashar al-Assad and head of a unit of his elite Republican Guard, has fled Syria for France and has information about the regime that could help its opponents, the Syrian rebel army said on Friday.
Tlas, whose empty Damascus home was ransacked by security police, had traveled via Qatar, a strong backer of the rebels, according to one opposition source.
Tlas has not been seen since news broke of his flight and has made no statements.
His brother Firas is in Paris, according to a European diplomat, and sister Nahed, the widow of a rich Saudi arms dealer who is well connected with the French political elite, lives in the French capital as well.
There were unconfirmed rumors that France, one of the major Western powers demanding that Assad step down, may have had a hand in Tlas's escape from the Syrian capital, a high-profile defection which could encourage the splintered opposition.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it showed that some of Assad's circle were starting to "vote with their feet".
But a U.S. official cautioned that it was too soon to say whether Tlas had simply deserted a sinking ship or would offer his services to the anti-Assad cause.
"Firas called our envoy in France and told him that he wants to support the revolution, and that Manaf has information about the regime the family and he wants to defect," said Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman of the Free Army command inside Syria.
"That was one month ago," said Saaededdine, who is also head of the rebel military council in Homs province.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a meeting of Syrian rebels and their backers hosted by Paris that Tlas was on his way to France, the former colonial power which has been a refuge for many Syrian dissidents in the past.
A friend of the Tlas family corroborated the information.
"He left Syria and arrived yesterday (Thursday) in Turkey. He wants to come to France to join his family," the friend told Reuters by telephone from the French capital.
He declined to give details of Tlas's route out of Syria to Europe. But opposition sources said it included Qatar.
Tlas, a Havana cigar smoker in his mid 40s, enlivened the social scene in Damascus as well as serving as a brigadier-general. His father Mustapha, defense minister under Assad's father for 30 years, has been in Paris for months, a diplomat said.
The family comes from Syria's Sunni Muslim religious majority, and Tlas's desertion from an inner circle dominated by Assad's fellow Alawites opens a first, ominous crack at the heart of ruling elite which has withstood lesser defections.
MOTIVE AND CONSEQUENCES
U.S. officials said Washington does not yet consider him a "defector" since he has not yet joined the Syrian opposition or pledged his loyalty. "He has abandoned the regime," said one. "The next question is: 'Does he join the opposition?'"
But a Pentagon spokesman called it a significant move by a senior officer and a personal friend of the Syrian president, and a "crack in the inner circle".
"We do believe that General Tlas's defection is significant," said Navy Captain John Kirb. "He is a senior official in the Syrian army. He's a former friend of Assad, so we don't believe this defection should be taken lightly."
Whether or not his move heralds a wider crack-up of the regime, Tlas was popular and charismatic, so the consequences for Assad could be "more a public relations black eye than a colossal blow to the solidarity of his entourage".
Friends have said Tlas was troubled by conscience. He may also believe, as Assad's enemies keep insisting in the face of stubborn resistance from well-equipped government forces, that 42 years of rule by the Assad dynasty are coming to an end.
The revolt against Assad which began 16 months ago and has killed over 15,000 is led mainly by Sunnis. Tlas's break with his friend may be symptomatic of an erosion of support for the president among the Sunni business elite, who have been slow to endorse an uprising driven by their poorer co-religionists.
He leaves behind a country now deeply scarred by a virtual civil war, where Syrians in shattered towns not 10 miles from the capital are digging mass graves to bury those killed in shelling or by vengeful pro-Assad militiamen.
Fighting has reached an "unprecedented level" in recent weeks, according to the head of a United Nations monitoring mission in the country, General Robert Mood, and activists are recording death tolls averaging around 100 per day.
Army shelling and assaults on Friday morning killed three people in the southern province of Deraa, where the revolt began, near the Jordanian border. In the northeastern province of Deir Ezzor, activists reported fierce clashes.
END OF A FRIENDSHIP
Tlas commanded a brigade of the Republican Guard, an elite force headed by Assad's feared brother Maher, one of the architects of the bloody crackdown that began in March 2011.
His departure alone is unlikely to affect greatly the capability of the Syrian army, but it may encourage other senior Sunni officers to desert. Assad's enemies in the West as well as at home are likely to capitalize on the news.
Government sources said his "desertion means nothing," and that "if Syrian intelligence had wanted to arrest him it would have". But a source in the exiled opposition called it "a very important defection", saying the 105th Brigade "is very attached to their general, so we can say the true defection has started".
A Western diplomat who knew Tlas in Damascus, where the general and his wife pursued a glamorous society lifestyle with interests in the arts, told Reuters: "His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating."
A witness in Damascus, who spoke anonymously for fear of the security services, said Tlas's house in the Syrian capital had been ransacked by security agents on Thursday: "They took away everything," the witness told Reuters.
Friends say Tlas was dismayed by violence, which hit his hometown Rastan especially hard. Many fellow Sunni Muslims have joined the rebel Free Syrian Army, saying the Tlas clan was dishonored by association with the crackdown.
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul; Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Khaled Oweis; Editing by Douglas Hamilton, Alastair Macdonald and Giles Elgood)