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Manaf Tlass and the future of Syria

A solution that includes the Tlass family is not worthy of the sacrifices that many ordinary Syrians have made.

Christian Henderson
29 July 2012

Successful defections from collapsing regimes are about timing and Manaf Tlass’s departure from Syria came at the perfect moment. Since he left Damascus the struggle for Syria appears to have entered the end game. Governments in the west and the Gulf have welcomed his jump over to the opposition and it seems he is being considered for a political role by those who are trying to build a viable interim government that may follow the departure of President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia has been particularly receptive and his interviews on Saudi-owned media suggest that he has the Gulf kingdom’s backing.

On paper, Tlass has the credentials and the right connections for a role in the new Syria. His army connections may enable him to convince Syria’s military leadership to abandon Bashar’s ruling clique. His Sunni Muslim background satisfies the Gulf Cooperation Council states and in particular Saudi Arabia. The footage of Tlass performing Hajj to Mecca after he arrived in Saudi Arabia earlier this week was clearly designed to market his sectarian credentials to the Sunni Muslims in Syria’s opposition.

Tlass also has a good relationship with the west. His image as a cigar-smoking rogue who has connections to European elites through his socialite Parisian sister Nahed Ojjeh, may have helped convince western governments that he is the type of person they can do business with. Indeed, numerous articles in the western press have gushed about his glamour and good looks.

However despite the propitious PR and wishful thinking of those planning a transition it is unlikely that Syrians will forget the corruption of a family that has played an integral role in the Baath regime’s 40-year-rule. 

Tlass’ father Mustafa was Syrian Defence Minister from 1972 to 2002, when his outlandish statements and interest in poetry and cooking led many observers of the regime to consider him a kind of court jester. He is known for dating Sophia Loren and once referred to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as “the son of 60,000 whores”.

However despite the colourful image his senior role and his Sunni Muslim background enabled the regime to develop its image beyond what many in Syria considered to be a regime ruled exclusively by an Alawi clique. Mustafa had a reputation for being extremely loyal to the Assad family, a relationship his two sons Firas and Manaf inherited and used to secure their own success in a new elite under President Bashar.

Mustafa’s Sunni sect also meant that he was used by former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad as an envoy to the Gulf states and as a result was able to build up a useful network amongst the Gulf monarchs. Manaf’s sister Nahed Ojjeh was married to Akram Ojjeh, the wealthy middleman for the recently deceased Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. These connections have helped smooth Tlass’s reception in Saudi Arabia and will reinforce his image as someone who can serve regional elites and potentially advance business interests in a post-Bashar Syria.

Manaf’s businessman brother Firas has not been mentioned in much of the reporting on Manaf but his role has also been significant. Firas left Syria sometime after the start of the uprising in 2011 and is now possibly based in Paris and Dubai. Since the early 1990s Firas built up a number successful businesses by using his high-ranking connections, profiting from a period of privatisation that saw the start of a business alliance between the military top brass and the traditional business classes. Firas was able to act as a front man for many of the deals that involved public servants, who were banned from private enterprise. In a 2002 study, it was noted that Firas was one of 13 people who was given a go–ahead by the government for more than half of the wave of investment projects that followed the new policy of economic liberalisation.

Both Manaf and Firas were known for their support and patronage of Syria’s cultural scene, which helped build a pillar of legitimacy for Bashar’s rule. Manaf used to host cultural salons at his house in which Bashar and his wife Asma mingled with leading actors, directors and filmmakers. Firas funded the Damascus Theatre Festival. These relationships marked the development of a new cultural, business and political elite that smoothed the start of Bashar’s rule as a hereditary president.

As the revolution against Bashar Al-Assad’s rule moves closer to an intense civil war, there is a general fear of what may follow in Syria. A chaotic failed state poses a security threat to the neighbourhood and a successful transition towards democracy poses a threat to the political sustainability of other autocracies in the region. In light of this, solutions that involve the recycling of former regime figures such as Tlass may become increasingly likely. The names of other ex-regime figures such as Abdel Halim Khaddam and Rifaat Al-Assad have also been mentioned with reference to a potential Saudi plan for a future Syrian government.

It is hard to see that Tlass or anyone else with connections to the former regime will be politically acceptable in the long term, but that might not stop them from trying. Such a plan is also likely to be about protecting regional interests and preserving the stability of the status quo. There are precedents for someone of dubious background being placed in a post-regime change government, the most obvious example being Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq. 

Should Tlass manage to pull off a role in the new Syria his involvement in Syrian politics may be more benign than that of the current leadership, although that would not be difficult. However after 18 months of killing and destruction Syrians have the right to justice, and a leadership that reflects their bravery and spirited resistance. A solution that includes the Tlass family is not worthy of the sacrifices that many ordinary Syrians have made.

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