BEIRUT - A high-profile general close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his family have defected, dealing his embattled regime another blow, a source close to the government said on Friday.
"General Munaf Tlass defected three days ago, and he appears to have left Syria," the source said on condition of anonymity.
Tlass is the highest-ranking military officer to have abandoned the Syrian regime.
He is the son of former defence minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of Assad's late father and predecessor, Hafez. Tlass was also a member of the inner circle of power in Syria, and a childhood friend of Assad.
The Sunni official's family is originally from the rebel-held town of Rastan, in the central province of Homs, which is currently besieged and being shelled by regime troops.
A general in the elite Republican Guard, which is tasked with protecting the regime, Tlass was sidelined more than a year ago, after he was deemed unreliable.
According to the source with close ties to Damascus, Tlass had embarked on several unsuccessful reconciliation missions between regime loyalists and rebels in Rastan and the southern province of Daraa.
Months later he gave up his military uniform and opted for civilian clothing. He set up residence in Damascus, where he let his beard and hair grow long.
Another source in Damascus said that Tlass' relations with the authorities became irreconcilable after the regime's fierce assault on the Homs district of Baba Amr in February this year.
Tlass reportedly refused to lead the unit tasked with reclaiming the former rebel stronghold, and Assad subsequently told him to stay at home.
Sources close to Tlass say his family is now in Dubai, including his brother Firas, who is a businessman.
Tlass' cousin Abdel Razzak defected from the military several months ago, and heads the elite Free Syrian Army's Farouk Battalion in Homs.
"If his defection is confirmed, it will be a painful blow to the Syrian regime and its inner circle, because he is close to the ruling family," Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based Observatory estimates that more than 16,500 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad's rule erupted in mid-March last year.