I recently had the opportunity to interview Firas Tlass. His father Mustafa Tlass was defense minister for Hafez al Assad the father of Bashar al Assad. The Tlass family was obviously very close to the Syrian regime and one of the most important families in Syria. The Tlass family were also one of the richest in Syria and had a lot of benefit from being so closely linked to the regime. In conjunction with this interview I would suggest that you also read the interview I did with Zaid Tlass, he defected from the Syrian military and gives a very personal insight into the working of the regime. You can find it here
The interview with Firas is below and I write it verbatim.
When the revolution started nearly 3 years ago the first Syrian army officer to defect to the revolution was Abdul Razzak Tlass, which created huge waves. It was considered inconceivable that any of the Tlass family would ever be disloyal to Bashar al Assad. As time went on, more and more of the Tlass family have decided to support the revolution. This is my second interview with a member of the Tlass family. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to meet and interview Zaid Tlass Now I have had the chance to question Firas Tlass and ask him about the situation and why he defected even though it would cost him a lot of his wealth and business.
My first question was about his reaction to the defection of Abdul Razzak and the effect it had:
Firas: People always ask me about Abdul Razzak, but they don’t know that he was one amongst hundreds of my relatives to have made this decision. Many others, from officers to civilians have defected as well.However,Abdul Razzak became an important symbol because his defection came early, and because of his civilian character(as opposed to the typical military figure) ,which was very effective on the ground in terms of gaining the people’s heart.There are also many more like him who did not get as much attention.
Why did you defect? You had a lot of privilege by being close to the regime
Firas: I did not have a political position to defect from as I am not a politician nor was I involved militarily with the regime.I just decided to take a different course in my life and my conscience was the driver of my decision; for each one of us there will come a moment where we reassess our life, our choices,positions, and probably also affiliations.
For me, this moment came with the start of the Syrian revolution.I still had hope, the first few weeks, that there would be a national solution through a grand national reconciliation initiated by the regime to rebuild Syria on a totally new basis, one that responds to the aspirations of the Syrian people. However,when I lost hope,and that happened quiet early, within the first few weeks of the revolution, I chose to stand on the side of the oppressed,and this was the turning point in my life:I lost my company that I had been building for the past 30 years,my house and properties, but I have gained a consciousness, comfort and the feeling of being part of the people,the real people.
What about the role of Russia, Iran and North Korea in the conflict. What can you say about this?
Firas: Russia is defending itself and its interests through Bashar al Assad. For, as it is commonly known, it has a historic zone of influence in Syria since the Cold War,and within what has happened in the region Russia has lost some partial areas of influence,particularly in Libya and previously in Iraq; Syria remains its major influence in the Middle East. There is also another factor, not less important,and that is the Russian’s recognition of the American lack of enthusiasm to seriously intervene in Syria, and thus they are using this opportunity to fill the American void in the region. Iran has an ideological project/plan which started with the Islamic revolution in 1979, which is based on exporting/diffusing the Islamic revolution, and imposing itself as a regional power.This ambition increased with the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Syria, within the Iranian plan, is its arm extended to the West on the shores of the Mediterranean and on the borders of Israel and Lebanon. Iran is also aware that the Assad regime is the only system that could achieve its interests in the Arab region. Any other system, whatever its nature, if it were to govern Syria,would not be able to satisfy its interests in the same way as the Assad regime.That is why they think that the remaining of Bashar al Assad in power is a battle of survival, for their own nationalist goal, and they are ready to go even further than that to reach this goal. As for North Korea, the Syrian military cooperation with them is old; there is even a part of the military system of the Syrian army which depends on Korean technology, especially in the field of advanced missiles and chemical weapons. In case of a Korean commanders presence, they would be there as technical experts.
What about the refugee crisis in Jordan. Do you think it is being used as a tool by Iran and Syria to try and destabilize Jordan? If so will Jordan be drawn into the war?
Firas: Iran could do anything, it has intelligence arms extended as far as Argentina, and it will not hesitate to do anything that serves the survival of its ally, and the refugee crisis in Jordan is certainly one of the potential cards to be used on economical,security/intelligence,and media levels. Bashar al Assad’s regime runs his battle with the mentality of the long-war, so if he were to focus on a specific area or neglect another, he is thinking tactically about it, and considers it a temporary phase. And if this probability occurs, Jordan will be unable to make a big step of this kind because of its internal complications, and its inability to engage in a battle of this kind, which may create further disturbances on the Jordanian side.
So Iran and Russia and working together to create new spheres of influence in the middle east?
Firas: In a sense yes, they are trying to draw a map of new balances but their ability to do so is determined by the American position; for the role of any international or regional player today with regards to Syria is determined by the size of the American vacuum. What is not filled by America will be filled by other players, in particular Russia and Iran Russia and Iran are in agreement on several points; there has been some kind of agreement between them for many years: both have an imperial project, aiming to re-state their influence on an international and regional level,and both now have an interest in the survival of Bashar al Assad, though for different reasons.
How is it that Syria has become little more than a puppet under the control of the Iranians?
Firas: Hafez al Assad,the father of Bashar, understood very well the game of international alliances. He managed to build a strong coalition with Iran but it remained in the framework of an alliance,he did not allow the Iranians to meddle or enter in the depth of Syrian affairs, because he knew the points of convergence with the Iranians (in Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf and Israel) and refused to let Syria become a card in the hands of Iran’s ideological ambitions. Bashar al Assad did not realize this delicate balance,Bashar al Assad used to think that he owned the country, and he was acting out on this basis.He did not have a roadmap (not bad nor good) and he did not know what to do; he was influenced by the people around him,mostly Al Makhlouf who were driven by their business and financial interests. He did not reach the level of political awareness to manage a complex country like Syria in a troubled region and dangerous phase. and he let Syria turn from a regional player that benefited from its relationship with Iran to a card in the hand of Iran’s imperial project.
What about the Kurds. Do you think they have separatist intentions and will try to divide the country to create an autonomous region?
Firas: The Kurds have proved that they understand the game of politics. They took advantage of every opportunity to install a fait accompli that improves their chances to negotiate in the future. In principle, Syria has mistreated the Kurds (since independence,and not only in the rule of Al Assad) and failed to integrate them into the Syrian social fabric, and deprived them from their basic rights, mainly their cultural rights, that is why they feel alienated from the Syrian society. Today, this opportunity came with the eastern and northern areas falling out of control of the regime, they found themselves to be strong enough and organized to extend their influence over large areas of northern Syria. So they have done so. However, contrary to what is being portrayed by the media, I do not see that what is happening in the north is an introduction to the separation of the Kurds,since the majority of the Kurdish discourse is not separatist, and most of the Kurdish political formations consider themselves to be an integral part of the Syrian homeland; they are only demanding their legitimate rights as being an essential component of the Syrian identity.
Looking to the future. What do you think will happen in Syria?
Firas: History does not go back, there is no turning point,and inevitably there will be a new Syria. The road is long and difficult and there will be great sacrifices, but in the end, there will not be a place for Bashar al Assad in Syria, sooner or later. As for the shape of the end, or what you may call the solution, it is open to many possibilities, but the historical circumstances have paved the way for change,what remains is the endpoint. And this will come, inevitably, as history has taught us. The great challenge that we will face, in my opinion, is the economical and development challenge, which is no less important than the political, security, and social challenge. We have millions of unemployed and millions of Syrians who do not find food to eat; thousands of factories and work-shops have been destroyed. We must start thinking now about the development question, how are we to provide job opportunities for the people, and how are people to resume their lives.
And the extremists. What is the solution to that problem?
Firas: The issue of the jihadists is complex and requires a special body to deal with it. If the regime ends abruptly(Assad’s assassination or escape) then dealing with them should be based on advice- advising them to leave Jihad while providing them with a cash injection to purchase their ammunition and secure their return to their countries. What would be left of them then would be considered against the law and dealt with accordingly. As in the case of the continuation of the conflict and their continuously increasing influence to confront the opponent regime; here we would be entering a long struggle ,which will lead to a more complex regional conflict.
End of interview