(CBS News) Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass is the highest-profile military officer to defect from Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, but he's not the first member of his wealthy and powerful family to distance himself from the dictator.
Two of Tlass' cousins, themselves former officers in the Syrian military, joined the opposition Syrian Free Army months ago. They have since become folk heroes as commanders of SFA fighters in Rastan, near Homs.
The Tlass family is Sunni and has been influential for decades in maintaining support among the Sunni elite for the Assads, who are Alawites.
Tlass was a childhood friend of President Assad, and their fathers were also friends and political allies. Haafez al Assad appointed Mustafa Tlass to the post of Defense Minister -- a position he held from 1972 to 2004. Earlier this year, Mustafa left Syria after what was reported to be an argument with a senior member of the regime, and now lives in Paris.
One of Tlass' brothers, Firas, is currently a businessman based in Dubai. He was a powerful supporter - and beneficiary - of Assad's liberalization of the Syrian economy over the past decade. He is thought to have arranged safe passage out of Syria and a place to stay in the Gulf for Tlass' wife and children.
Tlass' move was welcomed by Western leaders, who have condemned Assad's crackdown against those who protest his autocratic rule. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called it "a crack in the inner circle," for Assad and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised military and regime insiders for starting to "vote with their feet."
The timing of Tlass' defection this week is still a mystery. A year ago, he spoke openly in favor of democratic reforms. At the time he apparently believed they would come through Assad's initiatives. Now having watched democracy demonstrations degenerate into civil war, that hope has seemingly died.