ANKARA: He is a Republican Guard brigadier and son of Syria's longest-serving defence minister. But most of all Manaf Tlas is a friend of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of his inner circle and a prominent figure in the Damascus "young guard".
Or he was. Tlas has fled to Turkey was heading on Friday for France, where his father now lives, a family friend and France's foreign minister said. He is the first real insider to bolt the embattled clique fighting off a revolt against the Assad clan.
Tlas has long been a rare Sunni name within a ruling elite dominated by Assad's fellow Alawites; the flight of the family scion may reflect a growing sectarian divide and eroding support for the dynasty among richer Sunnis, who have been slow to join a revolt launched by poorer sections of the majority population.
Manaf Tlas may have seen the writing on the wall for Assad; the president's enemies have been quick to portray it that way.
A handsome man in his 40s with a beautiful wife, Tlas used to cut a dashing figure on the Damascus social scene, entertaining diplomats, artists and journalists and rooting for what he saw as reformist policies of his president friend.
But friends said he had grown increasingly disillusioned with the system that awarded his family rank and privilege.
His playboy father, Mustapha Tlas, attended military academy with Hafez al-Assad and remained his friend, confidant - and defence minister - through his three decades in power.
On Assad's death in 2000, Mustapha Tlas helped arrange a smooth transition for his son Bashar; at the same Baath party congress which anointed the younger Assad, Tlas's own son Manaf was elevated to the Central Committee of Syria's ruling party.
The elder Tlas and another son have both left Syria since the revolt against Assad began last year. Mustapha Tlas left some months ago for France, saying he needed medical care. His daughter Nahed, wealthy widow of a Saudi arms dealer, has long lived in Paris. His son Firas, a business tycoon, is now Egypt.
Like their fathers, Manaf Tlas and Bashar al-Assad are old friends and underwent military training together. Tlas helped introduce his contemporary Bashar, 46, to the Sunni Damascus social scene when he was being groomed for power in the 1990s.
In the decade that followed, Tlas spoke of reform but defended its cautious, some said glacial, pace under Assad: "You need time. You need years," he told the Washington Post in 2005. "There's a generation you have to push forward."
But the 2011 uprising rocked his world. His father's home town of Rastan, about 160 km (100 miles) north of Damascus, was among the first to rise up against Assad - and get hammered by the army for its defiance.
Peaceful demonstrations were silenced by the gun, prompting Rastan's residents, many of whom served in the army and had the patronage of the Tlas family, to take up arms.
Tlas was privy to the inner working of the military crackdown by the core Alawite forces on the popular revolt. As a senior officer in the Republican Guard, he would have been in regular contact with that force's commander, Bashar al-Assad's feared younger brother Maher, an architect of repression.
He did not like what he saw, and tried to do something to ease the crackdown, his friends and opposition sources say. They credit him with intervening to negotiate local ceasefires.
"Manaf has been growing increasingly frustrated for months," one friend told Reuters. "Being from Rastan, he felt increasing dishonour as his hometown was being levelled and hundreds of his relatives fell dead or injured.
"He started to tell people he trusted that he wanted out, and that he has respect among the Free Syrian Army," the friend said, referring to the rebel force which many Sunni officers and soldiers from Rastan have joined.
A Western diplomat who served in Damascus said that Tlas, with his boyish good looks and fluent English and French, a taste for paintings and concerts, stood out among a Syrian officer corps drawn largely from the historically disadvantaged Alawite minority and often poorly educated.
He and his wife Tala went regularly for weekends to Paris, where his sister, widow of billionaire Saudi arms dealer Akram Ojjeh, is a prominent socialite.
"Manaf does not give the impression that he is a thug," the Western diplomat said.
"But he mattered in the military. His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating."
In Washington, a U.S. official said: "General Tlas is a big name and his apparent decision to ditch Assad hurts, even though it probably didn't come as a surprise. Tlas lately seems to have been on the outs, but he's got charisma and some smarts.
"If he joins the insurgents, that could be significant."
Others take a different view.
"I do not think it will have any impact," said a Lebanese official close to the Damascus government. "The Tlas family has distanced itself for some time from what is happening.
"It will not change anything in the balance of power inside the country. They do not have any influence on the ground. They have made promises that they did not deliver," he said.
"The main goal for this defection will be to cause a moral shock. The Americans will try to use it to the maximum."
Syriasteps, a website with Syrian security links which reported Tlas's defection on Thursday, quoted a security official for Assad's administration saying: "His desertion means nothing." AGENCIES