Syria’s former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of President Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez, died in Paris on Tuesday, his son Firas said. He was 85.
Tlass, whose other son Manaf was among the most high-profile regime officials to defect during the early days of Syria’s uprising, died in a hospital on the outskirts of the French capital.
Tlass “died this morning at the Avicenne hospital and will be buried in Paris in the hope he can one day be buried in Damascus,” Firas Tlass told AFP.
The former minister, who settled in France five years ago, had been admitted to hospital in mid-June after suffering a hip fracture, his son said.
He fell into a coma on Monday evening.
The former minister’s other son General Manaf Tlass defected from Assad’s regime in July 2012, several months into the uprising that was brutally crushed by security forces.
A childhood friend of Bashar al-Assad, Manaf Tlass later said French secret agents had helped him escape the country.
The uprising later turned into a devastating multi-sided war that has killed more than 320,000 people.
But Mustafa Tlass long refrained from publicly criticising the regime.
A leading member of Syria’s ruling Baath party, he was close to Hafez al-Assad, succeeding his friend as defence minister in 1972 following the coup that brought Assad to the presidency.
Assad went on to rule the country with an iron fist until his death in 2000, when he was succeeded by his son Bashar, who was 34 at the time.
Tlass remained in his post until he finally quit in 2004.
Originally from Rastan in central Syria, under rebel control since 2012, Tlass was one of the most senior Sunni Muslims in the Assad regime’s Alawite-dominated security apparatus.
“He had a minor role in military strategy, which was decided by Hafez al-Assad and the Alawite officers who controlled the army,” said Alain Chouet, a French former intelligence officer who spent many years in the Middle East.
In a rare 2005 interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, the former minister defended a 1980s crackdown against a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising, despite admitting that at its height, 150 people a week were hanged in Damascus alone.
“We used weapons to assume power, and we wanted to hold onto it. Anyone who wants power will have to take it from us with weapons,” he said.
He wrote several books including his 1983 “The Matzah of Zion”, a bestseller in the Arab world, in which he claimed that Damascus Jews had killed two Christians in 1840 in order to use their blood in religious rituals.
The “blood libel” allegations were commonly used against European Jews in the Middle Ages.
Tlass was also known for his crush on Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida.
He famously claimed to have ordered pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon’s war to avoid targeting Italian troops -- “because I do not want a single tear falling from the eyes of Gina Lollobrigida.”