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Can flamboyant defector Tlass speak for Syria's silent elite?

Flamboyant Syrian defector Manaf Tlass has been widely dismissed as a tainted figure too close to the Syrian regime. But experts claim that he appeals to Syria's middle and upper classes, who have not yet voiced their opposition to the regime.

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When Manaf Tlass, the rakishly handsome former Syrian brigadier-general, made his first televised public statement just weeks after his defection to France, experts were quick to advise caution.

With his open shirt collar and his expensively coiffed mop of hair slightly tussled, Tlass read out a statement on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV offering to “serve Syria after [President Bashar] al-Assad’s era.”

Days later, the Wall Street Journal reported that “officials of some Arab and Western nations” were discussing ways to place Tlass “at the center of a political transition” in Syria.

But many experts and Syrian opposition figures dismissed the idea of Tlass as a transitional leader, ticking off a check-list of reasons: Tlass was too close to the Assad regime, his family was too close to the Assad dynasty, he defected too late, his televised message was not sufficiently critical of the Syrian regime, and there was “no way” the Syrian people would accept him as a leader.

Former Syrian Brigadier General Manaf Tlass is known for his penchant for Cuban cigars, fine wines and a lavish lifestyle.
Former Syrian Brigadier General Manaf Tlass is known for his penchant for Cuban cigars, fine wines and a lavish lifestyle.

Even his famously flamboyant lifestyle came up for righteous scrutiny: his penchant for expensive Cuban cigars, the lavish parties hosted with Tala, his Damascene socialite wife, and his appreciation of fine wines.

None of the above, it was implied, boded well for his ability to command the respect of Syria’s hardscrabble rebels - least of all the Islamists fighters in rebel ranks. 

But in a country as divided as Syria, one man’s flaws could serve in another man’s favour.

According to Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies and a leading Syria expert, Tlass may appeal to Syria’s middle and upper classes -- many of whom have not yet voiced their opposition to the regime.

“The middle and upper classes living in the larger cities -- primarily Damascus and Aleppo -- have been sitting on their hands for most of this uprising,” said Landis in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “I don’t doubt that most will want to see the end of the regime, but they cannot speak up as long as Assad is in power. But once the regime falls, they will join the public discourse, and they may be fearful of much of the opposition, which largely comes from the countryside.”

A crash-course on sectarian groups, but none on class division

During the bloody 18 months since the Syrian uprising broke, the international community has had a crash course on the sectarian composition of this strategic Middle Eastern nation.

The dominant discourse of the uprising has been the overwhelmingly Sunni revolt against the minority Alawite regime. As “the endgame” for Assad approaches, experts are contemplating a sectarian divide between the majority Sunni community and holdouts of pro-regime Alawite resistance.

It is hoped that between the two communal groups, Syria’s myriad minorities -- Christians, Druze, Armenians, Ismailis and Kurds, to name a few -- will fall neatly in line with the new power divide.

But those, as most ordinary Syrians and experts acknowledge, are high hopes.

As the scramble for post-uprising solutions intensifies, it may be time to shine a light on other, so-far overlooked societal factors at play in Syria today -- such as class.

“We’ve seen the importance of sects in this revolt, which is largely a Sunni revolt against a minoritairan government,” said Landis. “But what we haven’t seen clearly is the class element.”

Fear stalks Syria’s urban elite bubbles

Months after the uprising broke in the southern border town of Deraa, as Assad’s forces were unleashing their wrath in provinces such as Hama, Homs, Daria and Idlib, observers recorded sometimes surreal scenes in some of Syria’s major cities.

In the well-heeled districts of cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Tartus, observers reported that in the “upper middle class bubbles,” Syrian elites were still frequenting restaurants and cafes, pool parties proceeded unabated, and elites who had once ridiculed the clumsy Syrian state media were now sounding like the propaganda arm of the regime.

That may no longer be the case in Damascus and Aleppo today, where business is no longer proceeding as usual -- even in the elite bubbles.

But the underlining fear that has stalked some of these parts since the uprising began has not disappeared; it has very likely intensified.

“It’s scary for the middle and upper classes, who view the opposition as young kids from the countryside hungry for revenge against the regime,” noted Landis. “They fear the fundamentalists -- they don’t want to see an Iran in Syria or even a Lebanon [during the civil war] when roadblocks were set up at every corner.”

A Lebanon civil war-type scenario is already playing out in parts of Syria today where “a simple trip” through a city like Aleppo “could send one through a series of roadblocks run by competing forces,” as Landis noted in a recent posting on his blog, Syria Comment.

The ‘country-bumpkins’ turned nouveau riche

The Syrian revolt has been largely based in the country’s poor rural districts, sparking criticism of the failure of the middle and upper classes to join the opposition -- or, as in Tlass’ case, of defecting suspiciously late.

While rapid urbanization over the past few decades has changed the nature of the rural-urban and class divides in Syria, it has often only blurred class divisions, not obliterated them.

Syria has traditionally had a Sunni merchant class in the cities, while the Alawites, a historically persecuted sect, hail from the rugged mountains of the al-Alawiyin range that overlook coastal cities such as Latakia.

The class divides between Sunnis and Alawites began to change during the French colonial period, when France, facing a largely Sunni nationalist resistance, began to support the Nusayris, as the community was known before they changed their name to the more reputable “Alawite.”

When the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in 1970, the fortunes of the community began to dramatically turn in their favour, with Alawites dominating the top military and Baath Party echelons.

“The upper classes in Syria -- especially the Sunnis -- had to put up with the country-bumpkin Alawites telling them what to do,” said Landis.

Under the shadow of Iraq

But the Alawite regime also maintained control by buying the acquiescence of a Sunni elite personified by well-known lineages, such as the Khaddam and Tlass families.

One of the key figures of former Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad’s Sunni-Alawite alliance was none other than Manaf Tlass’ father, longtime former defense minister Mustafa Tlass.

For wealthy Sunnis, perched high in Syria’s oligarchic society, contemplating a post-Assad scenario, a transitional figure like Manaf Tlass could be reassuring - at the very least because there aren’t too many other figures who fit the bill.

“Manaf has super name-recognition, which is what is missing in Syria today,” said Landis. “The Assad regime has been wonderful at destroying anyone with a name and reducing civil society to its barest level.”

In his statements to the press, Tlass has been careful to craft a conciliatory discourse, calling for the preservation of Syria’s national institutions.

For many Syrians, his discourse on national institutions implies the Syrian military, for which he served as a commander of an elite unit of the Republican Guard.

For the international community wary of recreating the disastrous "de-baathification" that followed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Tlass’ message may be reassuring from a security standpoint.

But the spectre of Iraq continues to overshadow parts of the US and European foreign policy establishments. Some US columnists have already dubbed the suave Syrian defector the “new Ahmed Chalabi” -- after the controversial Iraqi expatriate who played a major role in pushing the US to war in his native Iraq.

In the end, it will have to be the Syrians who decide if Tlass represents a legitimate conciliatory transitional figure or a compromised old regime remnant.

If it’s the latter, Tlass is likely to remain in exile in France, joining the ranks of affluent, comfortable Syrian expatriates in Western cities, far from the country of their birth, unable to contribute to their native land.
 

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