Manaf Tlass is one of the highest-ranking military figures—and the first Syrian Republican Guard commander—to defect from the Syrian military and declare support for the opposition.

From a wealthy Sunni family from the city of al-Rastan, Tlass is the son of Mustafa Tlass, former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s long-serving defense minister. Manaf was a childhood friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and served as a brigadier general in Syria’s elite Republican Guard. He defected on July 5, 2012, and fled to Paris with his family. In a video broadcast by the Saudi al-Arabiya television network on July 24, 2012, Tlass called for Syrians to unite to build a democratic, free Syria “without destruction of the social fabric” of the country.

Since his defection, Tlass has been viewed as a potential leadership figure in the Syrian opposition. There has been speculation that he might assume a visible leadership role in the Free Syrian Army, the main non-Islamist armed opposition group, and even in a post-Assad Syria.

Despite this continued speculation, Tlass has retained a low profile. Some believe his place in the old order and his family ties to the Assad family would make him more acceptable to the regime’s two key international allies—Iran and Russia. But these same associations, in addition to his secularism and his family’s great wealth, are considered by others to be factors that will make Tlass unacceptable to the opposition’s largely populist and Islamist groups.

In mid-2013, rumors circulated that Tlass was a candidate for leadership of a new “national army” to be established by the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main opposition umbrella group, and had met with Israeli and U.S. officials in Jordan. However, one prominent member of the National Coalition rejected the possibility of Tlass heading a national army, saying Tlass was “unacceptable to the revolutionaries.”