The elusive Manaf Tlass
"Is your brother in Paris?" I asked.
"He is somewhere on this planet, that is all I can say," came the response.
Another frustrating exchange in the ongoing search for Manaf Tlass, the highest ranking military officer to quit the Syrian army in protest at its brutal suppression of the popular uprising.
Brigadier General Tlass to give him his full title, was reported to have abandoned the Assad regime and made his way to Paris, already home to his sister, his elder brother and his father. But no one has seen him since.
Laurent Fabius, France's foreign minister, publicly welcomed the news and did nothing to discourage speculation Paris was Manaf's final destination.
The news was greeted with great excitement by the city's Syrian exiles. A defection by the scion of a Sunni muslim family that had been at the very centre of power in Damascus for four decades. Manaf's father Mustafa had been Hafez Assad's loyal defence minister for more than thirty years. Manaf himself was rumored to have once been a close friend of President Bashar Assad. A very big fish indeed.
Opposition exiles in Paris grabbed at the news of his defection, confident it signaled a fatal blow to President Assad's grasp on power.
The search was on for the man who many thought would now take up a senior position in the fight to overthrow the regime.
At a demonstration last Saturday, everyone I spoke to was convinced he was already in town. One opposition figure who refused to give me his name actually told me Manaf had arrived the previous day at five o'clock in the afternoon. With a great show of conspiratorial confidence he said negotiations were under way as to his exact role in the future struggle.
"Have you spoken to him yourself?" I asked.
"Oh, no, not me." my anonymous fried replied.
Meanwhile, the French foreign ministry had started to rein back its enthusiasm. On the day of the demonstration its spokesman would neither confirm nor deny Manaf's arrival.
"I simply do not know." Said the urbane spokesman on the end of the phone line.
For the second time in two days, I went with a cameraman to a square in the city's upscale diplomatic district where several activists told me the Tlass family home was located. And for the second time, there was no sign of him. An American woman living in the building in question told me in no uncertain terms, "there are no foreigners living in this building".
Attention then turned to another address. The luxurious home of the sister Nahed Ojjeh, the socialite widow of a Saudi arms dealer.
A gaggle of journalists and photographers took up residence outside the house. Their only reward, the occasional appearance of a large Mercedes with tinted windows. A secretary told the journalists Madame Ojjeh was not at home nor was she reachable by phone.
As the days went by and Manaf Tlass failed to materialize, people began to wonder if he was here at all. The handsome, cigar smoking millionaire took on the elusive persona of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
As the famous song goes: "They seek him here, they seek him there, Those Frenchies seek him everywhere."￼
Another phone call to the older brother Firas proved no more illuminating.
"Have you seen your brother since he left Damascus?" I asked.
"I cannot tell you anything, I am very sorry." He replied.
"Well, can you tell me where he might be?"
"He could be in Paris, he could be in Dubai, he could be in Turkey, he could be in New York, I cannot say where he is. I am very sorry."
The search for the elusive Manaf Tlass continues.