BEIRUT – Syria’s most prominent defector offered himself up Thursday as a figure to unite the fractious opposition, saying he failed to persuade his former friend, President Bashar Assad, to end a bloody crackdown that has killed thousands of Syrians.

The remarks by Manaf Tlass, a Syrian brigadier general until he abandoned the regime this month, were published in a Saudi newspaper just as opposition factions gathered in Qatar to try to agree on a transitional leadership if Assad’s regime falls.

Some opposition members are deeply skeptical of Tlass, believing he’s far too close to the regime.

Mahmoud Othman, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said Tlass would simply “bring back the regime with a different image.”

“Those who recently defected from the regime must not take part in leading the transitional period,” Othman said in Istanbul, where he is based. “After the transitional period, the Syrian people will choose whomever they want through the ballots.”

Members of the SNC met Thursday, but made no decision on a possible leadership to fill the vacuum if Assad falls, according to Burhan Ghalioun, a former leader of the group.

The SNC has acted as the international face of the revolution, but it has been unable to unite all dozens of disparate rebel and opposition factions under one banner.

Ghalioun said talks would continue today and could stretch on past this series of meetings.

Tlass, a commander in the powerful Republican Guard and the son of a former defense minister, defected three weeks ago. Although the regime has remained largely intact over the course of the 17-month-old uprising, the pace of defections appears to be picking up.

“I will try to help as much as I can to unite all the honorable people inside and outside Syria to put together a roadmap to get us out of this crisis, whether there is a role for me or not,” he told the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily in an interview.

He said he was in Saudi Arabia to assess what kind of assistance the oil-rich nation could give to help create a new Syria. He said he does not see a future for Syria with Assad at the helm. The last time he saw the president, he said, was about a year ago.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry also announced a surprise visit by Tlass on Thursday. He attended a dinner with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has been an outspoken Assad critic. Turkey’s intelligence chief and a senior foreign ministry official also were at the dinner.

Tlass, once a personal friend of Assad, told the newspaper that the regime has many good people without blood on their hands and that the country’s institutions should be preserved. He said he tried to persuade the president not to listen to his inner circle of security advisers who were all recommending a harsh crackdown on the uprising.

Tlass said he defected when he realized the regime could not be deterred from its single-minded pursuit of crushing the opposition.

“Sometimes in a friendship you advise a friend many times, and then you discover that you aren’t having any impact, so you decide to distance yourself,” he said.

The conflict in Syria, which activists say has killed more than 19,000 people since March 2011, has drawn deep international condemnation. But world powers have few options to help beyond diplomacy — in part because of fears that any military intervention could exacerbate an already explosive battle. Syria’s close ties to Iran and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon mean that the conflict has the potential to draw in the country’s neighbors.

In Washington, the Obama administration is weighing its options for more direct involvement in the Syrian civil war if the rebels opposing the Assad regime can wrest enough control to create a safe haven for themselves, U.S. officials said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says it’s only a matter of time before the rebels have enough territory and organization to create such areas.

 


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