The recent defection of the highest-ranking Syria's Elite Republican Guard general from President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle could prompt more top military officers to got AWOL and lead to the dismantling of the regime, U.S. officials and senior analyst say.
Syrian Brigadier Gen. Manaf Tlas, one of two sons of long-time former Defense Minister Mustapha Talas, fled Syria Thursday. Reports suggest he was on route to France. The news of his defection was first reported late Wednesday on Turkish websites.
Jim Phillips, a senior research analyst with The Heritage Foundation said, Tlas's defection is a sign that the cracks in the regime have reached the inner circle and if he chose to openly support the opposition it could hasten the collapse of the Assad's dictatorship.
"His defection is also significant because he is the highest-ranking defector from the Republican Guard, the regime's loyal shock troops, as well as a prominent Sunni," Phillips added. Sunnis are a majority in Syria, but the regime is dominated by Alawites, a minority clan that makes up roughly only 10 percent of the population.
The Tlas family played a prominent role in Syria of connecting the Alawite minority to the Sunni and Shi'ite majority in the country.
Without that support "Tlas could be the harbinger of future defections by Syria's Sunni elite, which would spell big trouble for the Assad regime," Phillips suggested.
U.S. Officials are keeping close tabs on developments, suggesting that Tlas, whom they believe has been planning to defect for many months, may decide to openly join the opposition.
"General Tlas is a big name and his apparent decision to ditch Assad hurts, even though it probably didn't come as a surprise," a U.S. official, with knowledge of the region said.
"Tlas lately seems to have been on the outs, but he's got charisma and some smarts," the official added. "If he joins the insurgents that could be significant."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday the wave of high-ranking defections from Syria is an important step in the right direction but she chided Russia and China for hampering efforts by the international community to intervene.
"Those with the closest knowledge of Assad's actions and crimes are moving away," Clinton said to reporters. "We think that is a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime."
More than 15,000 people have been killed since the uprising began more than 16 months ago, according to activists monitoring the ongoing violence in the region. Reports of torture and numerous human rights abuses against women and children have also made international headlines.
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at email@example.com.