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Key Syrian defector General Manaf Tlas has hinted that French secret agents helped him flee Syria in early July.

Manaf Tlas said French “services” had helped him escape but refused to be drawn on how, only thanking the French government.

He warned that if the Damascus regime was subjected to more pressure, it could resort to using chemical weapons.

General Manaf Tlas was speaking from his refuge in Paris to interviewers from BBC Arabic and French news channel BFMTV.

His defection was seen as a major blow to the Damascus government.

Not only did he command the elite 10th Brigade of the Republican Guard, but his father Mustafa Tlas served as defence minister for 30 years and was a confidant of Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father and predecessor.

Key Syrian defector General Manaf Tlas has hinted that French secret agents helped him flee Syria in early July

Key Syrian defector General Manaf Tlas has hinted that French secret agents helped him flee Syria in early July

General Manaf Tlas has been touted as a potential figurehead for the opposition but many reject him as too deeply compromised.

He would not specify exactly which French organization had assisted his escape, saying he feared he could endanger those who had helped him.

As well as French groups, Manaf Tlas said the Free Syrian Army had helped him escape “from a distance”.

He warned the regime – under pressure – could resort to using chemical weapons “in limited areas”, adding: “If they used tanks and warplanes against civilians what would keep them from using anything else?”

Syria is at a “dangerous crossroads”, General Manaf Tlas warned, and he urged the international community to “focus all its efforts to draft a real road map to get Syria out of this crisis”.

But he said he was “of course against foreign intervention of any shape or form in Syria”, saying the Syrian people had to “achieve their own victory” and the international community could only help by “putting a new strategy for the revolution”.

The question of foreign intervention has divided the UN over Syria, with Russia and China refusing to back UN sanctions against their ally.

The new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, began his first mission on Monday with a visit to Cairo, and is due to visit Damascus in the coming days. But he has acknowledged the difficulty of the mission which defeated his predecessor, Kofi Annan.

Gen. Manaf Tlas suggested that his “defection” from the government had begun long before he physically fled his country when he withdrew to his office, alienated by the authorities’ violent response to protests.

“On the third month of the revolution, I defected from the regime,” he said.

“I met demonstrators and rebels, listened to their demands and felt that the regime is not willing to change.

“I felt that the regime was lying to the rebels and was searching for shortcuts. I withdrew to my office, did not listen to anyone and decided to defect and help the rebels.”

Manaf Tlas said many of the rebels he had met had been “imprisoned, murdered or tortured as a result of making real humanitarian demands”.

He urged his former friend, President Bashar al-Assad, to give up power not just for Syria’s sake, but for that of his family.

On Monday, it emerged that Russia was proposing organizing a conference bringing together “all the players” of the deadly Syria conflict, including opposition groups, ordinary citizens and the ruling regime.

In an interview scheduled to be published by leading French daily Le Figaro on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov reportedly said the conference would be organized along the lines of the Taif conference that ended Lebanon’s civil war in 1990.

According to the UN, more than 18,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011. Activists put the death toll at 23,000.