A key ally of Bashar Assad within the Syrian military has changed sides and fled the country, joining the opposition in exile.  General Manaf Tlas commanded a brigade of the Republican Guard, the elite unit whose loyalty to the regime usually exists without question:

A powerful military officer and longtime close associate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has defected to the opposition and was on his way to Paris, where foreign ministers from Friends of Syria countries are meeting, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed Friday.

In what could be the first sign of a crack in the Assad regime’s inner circle, Maj. Gen. Manaf Tlas fled to Turkey this week before heading for France to join his father, a once-powerful former defense minister, a close family friend told Reuters.

The pro-Assad Web site Syria Steps was the first to report that Tlas, who heads the elite Republican Guard, had joined the opposition. It appeared to be the most senior defection since the uprising against Assad began more than 15 months ago.

The Web site of the Tartous Today newspaper, which supports the Assad government, later carried a report from the Shaam News Network saying that Tlas had disappeared in the Syrian capital, Damascus, two days earlier but that the network had not published the information because of the “sensitivity of the situation.”

The news cheered the gathering of ex-pats in Paris this week meeting with representatives of Western and Arab nations, even if no one was sure what Tlas’ intentions are.  It also boosted the efforts of Western diplomats attempting to pressure Russia and China to back away from their client dictator:

The defection of a Syrian general who is a personal friend of President Bashar al-Assad gave a huge boost to anti-government rebels as Western and Arab states met them in Paris on Friday to help prise Assad from power.

In some of the strongest U.S. remarks yet on a crisis that has divided the United Nations Security Council along Cold War lines, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Paris conference that Russia and China must “pay a price” for blocking U.N. sanctions that might press Assad into stepping down.

As she spoke, Manaf Tlas, a brigade commander in the Republican Guard who attended military college with Assad and fled to Turkey this week, was on his way to Paris, where his father, Assad’s father’s defense minister, has also taken up residence, a close family friend told Reuters. …

“His defection is big news because it shows that the inner circle is disintegrating,” said a Western diplomat who knew Tlas in Damascus. “Manaf does not give the impression that he is a big thug, but he mattered in the military.”

In Washington, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity 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.”

If Tlas felt that unhappy within an elite unit that presumably enjoys special status and favors from the regime, he’s probably not the only senior officer to do so.  That puts Assad in a very uncomfortable position.  He can’t afford a purge in the middle of an insurrection, but he may not be able to afford letting it go, either.  How can he assure his own safety — presumably the overriding mission of the Republican Guard — without having assurances of their loyalty?  Tlas was supposedly a personal friend, and he turned out to be disloyal, at least to Assad.  That’s a situation that most dictators end up experiencing, and usually toward the very end of their regimes.

This has the potential to be very embarrassing for Russia and China as well.  One report has Tlas disillusioned over civilian massacres conducted by the Syrian military, to which Russia has been giving material support.  If Tlas testifies to that in public, Russia may have no choice but to withdraw its support, although neither Russia or China have been known to be terribly moved by international opinion.  Both might prefer to avoid the spectacle altogether by providing the necessary inducements to get Assad to leave on his own, while it can still be done.

Assad certainly isn’t on the cusp of collapse, at least not yet.  However, events are moving in that direction, and we may be reaching the point where that outcome is inevitable.