A powerful military officer and longtime close associate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has defected and was on his way to Paris, where foreign ministers from Friends of Syria countries are meeting, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed Friday.

In what could be the first sign of a crack in the Assad regime’s inner circle, Maj. Gen. Manaf Tlas fled to Turkey this week before heading for France to join his father, a once-powerful former defense minister, a close family friend told Reuters.

Word of the purported defection quickly buzzed through social media sites run by the Syrian opposition, which gleefully posted pictures of Assad and Tlas posing together in a reminder of how close the two had been.

The pro-Assad Web site Syria Steps reported that Tlas, who heads the elite Republican Guard, had joined the opposition--although other Web sites and opposition leaders said it was unclear whether Tlas would ally himself with the rebels battling Assad’s forces.

Either way, it appeared to be the most senior defection since the uprising against Assad began more than 15 months ago.

The Web site of the Tartous Today newspaper, which also supports the Assad government, carried a report from the Shaam News Network saying that Tlas had disappeared in the Syrian capital, Damascus, two days earlier but that the network had not published the information because of the “sensitivity of the situation.”

Col. Aref Hammoud, a spokesman for the opposition Free Syrian Army in southern Turkey, and two rebel officers inside Syria said the Free Syrian Army had helped Tlas cross into Turkey earlier in the day.

Hammoud declined to say where Tlas was but said he was not at the camp for military defectors outside the southern Turkish town of Antakya, making it unclear whether he would join the opposition.

Both the pro-Assad Web sites sought to play down the significance of the reputed defection, saying it would have no effect on the situation in Syria as the security forces continue their battle to crush the uprising.

Tartous Today accused Tlas of collaborating with the now-departed U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, and said the country was better off without him.

“Syrian intelligence would have captured him if they wanted to,” the Web site said. “His decision to defect will not affect us at all, but he will instead become a new burden on the hands of the garbage and traitors nesting in Turkey.”

Syria Steps quoted security officials as saying that “the situation on the ground is under control. There is nothing that will stop us from eliminating the terrorists in the country.”

However, the Web site also seemed to acknowledge the significance of the purported flight, adding that “this news comes as a shock to the Syrian people, who have long been familiar with the Tlas family and its loyalty to the nation.”

Tlas’s father, Mustafa Tlas, had been a confidant of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, serving as his defense minister for many years and then paving the way for a smooth succession for Bashar after his father died. The senior Tlas, however, is reported to have been living in Paris throughout most of the uprising; another of his sons is reputedly living in Dubai; and a member of the family commands one of the best-known Free Syrian Army battalions fighting near Homs, suggesting that the reported defection would not be a complete surprise.

If confirmed, however, it would be the first clear sign of disaffection within the ranks of the many senior Sunni officers who have remained loyal to the government, alongside those drawn from Assad’s Shiite-
affiliated Alawite minority. Several brigadier generals have defected in the past, but Tlas was a higher-ranked major general.

Syria expert Joshua Landis wrote on his blog that Tlas had recently been pushed aside by the Alawite officers because he “supported a policy of negotiation, flexibility and compromise.

“He was overruled by the military leadership and has since looked for a way out,” Landis wrote. “If he has indeed fled the country, the regime will be thrown back on its heels.”

The reports came as Syrian troops backed by helicopters pressed an offensive against the town of Khan Sheikhoun, a key front in the government’s effort to reclaim territory controlled by rebels in the northern province of Idlib. Six people were killed there, among 40 who died nationwide, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Damascus, the head of the grounded U.N. observer mission in Syria, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, said the violence has reached “unprecedented” levels.

Also Thursday, the whistleblowing WikiLeaks Web site said it had obtained 2.4 million ­e-mails from Syrians, many of them from official government accounts but some from members of the opposition.

The first batch released showed that Selex Elsag, a unit of the Italian defense technology group Finmeccanica, had sold sophisticated communications equipment to the Syrian authorities as recently as February, the Italian weekly l’Espresso reported.