Assad & Brig. Gen. Tlass
I was pondering how to approach the NY Times story from last week about how Assad's regime in Damascus is unstable and that the proof is in the defection of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass. And then I happened on a post from an old friend, investigative reporter Russ Baker of WhoWhatWhy.com who suggests all the "news" we're getting about Syria is, at the minimum, skewered. The Times:
The defection of a young general close to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has provided the most telling sign yet of eroding support for his government among even the most elite and trusted Sunni Muslims, who serve as a critical pillar of the security forces and civilian administration.
But while the defector, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, gained world attention when he fled Damascus on Thursday, President Assad?s bigger military challenge is the swelling number of silent objectors-- soldiers of all ranks lacking the means to flee, or the interest, but no longer cooperating with the government. Instead of responding to the call to duty, they are staying home, abandoning their posts as the opposition grows bolder, stronger and more effective, said Syrian military experts and defectors.
Mr. Assad?s loyal inner circle and core support remains the Alawite community, a minority Muslim sect. But Alawites constitute no more than 12 percent of the 23 million population, so the Assad family has for decades relied on the majority Sunnis for their legitimacy and practical support. Sunnis make up the bulk of the nation?s foot soldiers, hold posts throughout the bureaucracy and dominate the elite in the business community.
A few Sunnis have always held high-profile positions in the government and military. General Tlass?s father, Mustafa, like his son a Sunni, was a confidant of the president?s father, Hafez, and served as defense minister for 32 years under both men.
But the uprising fueled almost entirely by the Sunni community-- some 75 percent of the population-- has gradually formed a deepening sectarian rift, chipping away at that crucial support among Sunnis. As the government crackdown intensified, leaving by some estimates as many as 17,000 dead, according to the United Nations, at least one deputy minister and 15 generals, all of them Sunnis, have defected to Turkey, 5 in the past few weeks alone.
The numbers of those who are actively undermining the government by simply refusing to comply, rather than join the opposition, are far larger, however. The Syrian Army of roughly 400,000 troops has been more affected by this type of attrition than by defections, experts said. Of the 80,000 young men expected to show up for their mandatory military service this year-- most of them Sunnis-- experts said that virtually none have responded.
The distrust between the Sunnis and Alawites in the military has grown so deep that at night, when Sunnis are put on guard duty at key installations, there are always Alawite guards assigned to watch the Sunni soldiers, said a colonel who defected to Turkey.
The media told us that more than 100 people, including women and children, were brutally slaughtered at close range in the village of Houla in late May. The bloodshed, reported around the world, was ascribed to a militia, the Shabiha, which is loyal to Assad. Here?s an example, from the BBC website:Survivors of the massacre in Syria?s Houla region have told the BBC of their shock and fear as regime forces entered their homes and killed their families?.
Most witnesses who spoke to the BBC said they believed that the army and shabiha militiamen were responsible.
?We were in the house, they went in, the shabiha and security, they went in with Kalashnikovs and automatic rifles,? said survivor Rasha Abdul Razaq.
Later, a dribble of accounts cast doubt on this, since the people killed were, by and large, themselves supporters of Assad. But few heard about these. The BBC report did not say who Rasha was, or provide any evidence that she actually was there, or that if she was, she had any basis for saying that the killers were identifiable as to their affiliation. BBC quoted one other source, who did not provide a name. Despite the thinness of this material, the BBC story was picked up all over the world, and became perhaps the definitive account.
?According to eyewitness accounts?those killed were almost exclusively from families belonging to Houla?s Alawi and Shia minorities. Over 90% of Houla?s population are Sunnis. Several dozen members of a family were slaughtered, which had converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. Members of the Shomaliya, an Alawi family, were also killed, as was the family of a Sunni member of the Syrian parliament who is regarded as a collaborator. Immediately following the massacre, the perpetrators are supposed to have filmed their victims and then presented them as Sunni victims in videos posted on the internet.
?"Their findings contradict allegations of the rebels, who had blamed the Shabiha militias which are close to the regime.?