Bashar Assad
Bashar Assad Reuters

A Syrian general who was a leading member of President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle has defected to Turkey, a Damascus-based website with close links to the regime reported on Thursday.

The British Guardian reported that the general, Manaf Tlass, is a member of the most powerful Sunni family in Syria, and the son of a long-serving former defense minister, Mustafa Tlass. He reportedly fell out of favor in recent months for refusing to take part in attacks on civilian areas regarded as opposition strongholds.

Tlass's defection was reported by Syriasteps, a news website linked to the country's security apparatus. It said, according to the Guardian, that “a highly placed source in intelligence has confirmed that General Manaf Mustafa Tlass has fled to Turkey” and quoted a security official as saying, “His escape does not mean anything.”

A Turkish government official confirmed that two Syrian generals had defected in the past three days, but did not provide names “for their and their families' security.” The Guardian reported that one of the two generals the official referred to is from an engineering division. The second is believed to be Tlass, who is a general in the Republican Guard.

On Wednesday, a Turkish diplomat told AFP that a Syrian general and a number of soldiers defected and crossed into Turkey. It is unknown whether he was referring to Tlass.

Turkey has become home to dozens of soldiers who have crossed the border. Around 35,000 displaced Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey since the start of a bloody uprising in March 2011.

On Monday, nearly 300 Syrians defected to Turkey, including 85 soldiers. These included a general and several other officers.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, was quoted by the Guardian as having said, “Several sources inside Syria, including Alawite sources close to the regime, have confirmed to me that Manaf Tlass has left the country.”

Meanwhile on Thursday, Russia dismissed rumors that it would offer political asylum to Assad as a "joke."

“It is either an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia's position,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of the rumors.

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