A number of important defections are taking place from the Syrian military, indicating that the regime could be crumbling, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
A key defection from the circle of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad took place on 6 July when brigadier Manaf Tlass, the commander of Brigade 105 in the presidential guard and a close personal friend of Al-Assad, left Syria for Paris with his family.
Tlass is the son of former Syrian defence minister Mustafa Tlass, who served in the post for 30 years and was a confidante of the late president Hafez Al-Assad, as well as his collaborator in tightening the security grip of the Syrian regime.
Manaf Tlass is a member of the military and political elite close to the president. Observers view his defection as a clear sign that figures close to Al-Assad's personal circle have now started to switch allegiances and turn their backs on the president as the popular uprising in the country enters its 16th month, draining the resources of the regime and the Syrian military.
Some opposition figures said that Tlass had "bailed out of a sinking ship" by his action and was "trying to save his family's immense wealth." Regime sources have downplayed the defection, saying that Tlass had been under house arrest for months and his defection would not influence the military situation on the ground.
Nonetheless, Al-Assad's opponents in Syria and in the West have rejoiced over Tlass's defection because it could signal the beginning of the collapse of the regime.
Senior Western officials took particular interest in the defection because of Tlass's close connections to Al-Assad. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the move was "very critical because the inner circle has started to realise that the regime will not survive".
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the "defections prove that the Syrian government is unraveling," and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said that "the situation is changing in Syria."
Tlass is not the most senior officer to defect since the beginning of the uprising in Syria that has thus far killed an estimated 16,000 civilians and more than 4,000 military personnel. According to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the military wing of the Syrian opposition, more than 250 senior officers have deserted from the regular army, including ones ranked higher than Tlass.
A few days before Tlass defected, former Syrian MP and cleric Mohamed Habash, close to the regime for two decades, distanced himself from it and blamed it for the killings in Syria.
Speaking from Dubai, Habash justified his support for the regime in the past as a way of defending the country against US interference. Now, however, the regime should undertake comprehensive change, he said, starting with the removal of the president.
At the beginning of July, five senior Syrian army officers fled to Turkey, among them a major-general in the signal corps and 33 soldiers and their families.
One day later, another report said that 85 soldiers had fled to Turkey, this time including a major-general in the artillery division along with seven senior officers. In mid-June, some 455 senior officers, officers and soldiers were reported to have defected from the army.
A few weeks earlier, an air force colonel absconded to Jordan aboard his MiG-21, where he was given political asylum. Meanwhile, three other fighter pilots joined their colleague and entered Jordan across the shared border with Syria but left their jets behind.
FSA leaders estimate the number of defections to have reached 100,000 so far, and that Turkey alone has been giving refuge to nearly 250 FSA officers in the Hatai district in the south of the country near the border with Syria.
Three of these officers are major-generals, and there are also 50 brigadiers and more than 15 officers from the Ministry of Interior as well as military and civilian officials.
FSA commander colonel Riad Al-Asaad has said that morale is high in the FSA after the rise in defections from the regular army, now estimated at 100-200 defections every day.
Al-Asaad said in a recent interview that the regular army had started to lose control over large swathes of Syrian territory and that its control was now limited to military sites and barricades. The FSA controls some 60 per cent of the territory at night, he said.
"It is the beginning of the end" for the regime, Al-Asaad said.
The opposition has also revealed that key defections have occurred from Syria's air force and that entire airbases have been abandoned, such as the Dar Ezza airbase in Aleppo and the missile battalion in Al-Rastan in Homs.
Meanwhile, some 869 officers from the 1,100 posted in the city of Al-Rastan in central Syria have defected, and some 80 per cent of soldiers from the southern governorate of Deraa have also defected. Half of these have fled to Jordan and the others have joined the FSA.
Although the opposition fighters are no match in terms of weapons to the much larger regular army, which comprises 325,000 soldiers and a similar number of reserves, they are counting on the erosion of loyalty within the regular army to cause it to lose control.
One of the reasons why the regime is taking so long to collapse despite the defections may be because senior security and military officials have not abandoned it, given the regime's reliance on sectarian affiliations to run the state apparatus, the security services and the army.
The opposition believes that since a political solution for the Syrian crisis may now be unattainable, the defectors should be embraced despite their past support for the regime.
It has described them as a valuable catch because they may have information about senior officials in Syria and may know the weak points of the army. They may also be able to encourage others to defect from the regime.
For the moment, the West has been reluctant to supply opposition forces with advanced weaponry out of concerns that this could end up in the hands of anti-Western Islamists. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some wealthy Syrians want to fund and arm the armed opposition, however, though fears that a sectarian war could break out in Syria have thus far been discouraging them.
The Arab peace initiative proposed by the Arab League (AL) at the end of last year was unsuccessful, and the UN and AL envoy Kofi Annan declared earlier this week that plans to end the military crackdown and transition to a political solution had also ended in failure.
Last month, UN monitors abandoned their mission in Syria after two months spent in the country without achieving any progress on the ground. As skirmishes continue using heavy artillery on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, it now appears that developments on the ground are beyond the reach of diplomatic initiatives.
As a result, the military wing of the Syrian opposition has been growing in strength, and it is no longer restricted to the FSA, established in July 2011 with the aim of protecting the protesters.
Other armed opposition forces today include the Supreme Revolutionary Military Council (SRMC), led by Brigadier-General Mustafa El-Sheikh and established in February, the Local Military Council, which receives funds and military assistance from revolutionaries abroad, and other independent armed groups loyal to various financial and military donors.
Meanwhile, security reports say that senior military officers in the regime have been planning their exit strategies and opening channels of communications with the opposition in order to discuss their fates if they decide to defect from the army.
These senior officers apparently include members of Al-Assad's inner circle.
Recent leaks in the US and European press have also stated that some European and Arab states, along with the US, have drawn up a roadmap to support the FSA financially and militarily.
Under the plan, a minimum salary of $200 would be paid to each defecting soldier, helping them to unite and form a single army across Syria.
The plan would also speed up the rate of defections from the regular army by giving refuge to deserters, together with an income and arms, and it would launch a military confrontation against the regular army with the implicit promise that after the ouster of the regime power would be handed to the FSA.
If the plan were to be applied, it could result in more defections from the regular army and could better equip the FSA for battle. However, it would also cause further widespread destruction in Syria.
For the moment, the Syrian protesters do not fear for the future, since their priority is to overthrow the regime and halt its military machine, terminating the tight grip of the intelligence agencies that have ruled their lives for decades.
The defectors are not viewed negatively because of their formerly close ties to the regime, but there are growing fears that they may drag Syria into an unknown future.