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US says Syrian general's defection a 'crack in inner circle'; sanction calls mount

Although the U.S. does not want to assume a military role, it does want tougher sanctions. NBC's Andrea Mitchell.

The “significant” defection of a Syrian general could trigger more high-level defections from President Bashar Assad’s regime, Pentagon and diplomatic sources said Friday.

News of the defection spread as a 100-nation meeting in Paris concluded with calls for global sanctions against Syria to help end 16 months of brutal government repression and civil war that activists say have killed 14,000 people.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby called the defection of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas a "crack in the inner circle" of Assad's administration.

Brendan Smialowski / AP

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, listens with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, left, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius during the "Friends of Syria" meeting Friday in Paris.

Assad and Tlas were childhood friends, and Tlas was considered a confidant of the president.

While Tlas would be considered the highest-ranking member of the military closest to Assad to defect, the general had been placed under house arrest in March 2011 for his opposition to the government's crackdown on militants.

Tlas, a Sunni, had also attempted but failed to bring the Assad regime and Sunni elements of the opposition together.

Some members of the opposition have said they believe Tlas fled Syria only to try to save his family's fortune.

Game-changer? General, close friend of Assad, deserts Syria

U.S. officials could not confirm to NBC News reports that Tlas is on his way to Paris, where many of his family reside.

One U.S. official told NBC News that there was no direct contact between the State Department and Tlas.

Still, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking after the international meeting in Paris on Friday, hailed Tlas’ defection.

Raed Qutena / AFP - Getty Images, file

An Aug. 22, 1999, photo shows then Colonel Bashar al-Assad, left, who is now the Syrian President, and Manaf Tlas, son of then Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas.

“Regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet" by abandoning the four-decade Assad dynasty, she told reporters.

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"We think that is a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime."

Clinton also called for Russia and China, which were not represented at the Paris meeting, to stop standing in the way of sanctions against Syria.

"I will tell you very frankly, I don't believe Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all,” Clinton said. “Nothing at all for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is that if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price because they are holding up progress, blockading it. That is no longer tolerable."

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Analysts said the Paris meeting accomplished little despite stepped-up rhetoric.

“There is some solace Gen. Tlas has left Syria,” Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told msnbc.com. But the Paris meeting left “no change in dynamics that is any way measurable ... I don’t think you have a big reshuffle of Russia position.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told the Interfax news agency Friday that Clinton's statement went against the strategy for ending the bloodshed in Syria that was agreed to by world powers last Saturday in Geneva.

That agreement, brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, said a transitional governing body "shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent." An earlier draft was watered down after Russia stonewalled, adamant that Assad should not be forced out.

Handout / Reuters

Smoke rises from Kerkenez, near Idlib, Syria, on Friday.

Syrian rebels dismissed the importance of the Paris meeting, saying sanctions weren't working.

They called for military intervention.

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NBC's Richard Engel, who just left Syria after spending a week getting a first-hand look inside the country, says "it was radically different" than the last time he visited now that opposition groups have created safe havens where they are openly in control. In those areas, Syrian troops – who are now concentrated in pockets within big cities -- could not be seen for hundreds of miles.

At the conference, Hassem Hashimi, a member of Syria's opposition National Council, called for a no-fly zone to prevent military forces from "flying over defected soldiers and civilians and bombarding them."

"We're sick of meetings and deadlines. We want action on the ground," said activist Osama Kayal, speaking via Skype from an area near Khan Sheikhoun.

This article includes reporting by NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and Adrienne Mong, msnbc.com's Brinley Bruton, Reuters and The Associated Press.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton levels harsh criticism toward both China and Russia over their apparent support for a Syrian regime that may be losing control of the country. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

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