Syrian regime official Manaf Tlas, once a close friend of President Bashar Al Assad, has defected from his post and fled Syria via Turkey, according to his family.

Tlas is now the highest-ranking member of the regime to have deserted Assad during the 16-month popular Syrian uprising, which has killed over 14,000 people so far by some estimates.

Rumors had Tlas choosing France as his final destination, though this is unconfirmed. It seems like a likely move, since Tlas's own father, former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, reportedly lives in France. Even Assad's uncle, former military leader Rifaat Al Assad, has made Paris his home.

And Paris has certainly been focused on the situation in Syria -- on Friday, the city hosted a Friends of Syria meeting. French President Francois Hollande delivered the opening speech and called for Assad to step down.

If Tlas does settle on Paris, it would be in line with a growing trend of bonhomie between Syrian opposition activists and the City of Light.

A Long Time Coming

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the histories of France and Syria have been closely intertwined. It began when World War I ended, and French troops showed up on Syrian soil.

The occupation was a tumultuous one. In 1920, under a League of Nations agreement, Syria was placed under a French mandate. Widespread Syrian resistance confronted the troops, and the French responded with brutal force.

At the time, the Syrians' shared rebellion united several religious sects in the country.

The next major upheaval occurred in 1940, when France fell to Axis powers during World War II and Syria, in turn, came briefly under the control of the Vichy Government, a German-allied administrative body in France. It wasn't long before the UK and an exiled French military unit -- The Free French, led by Charles de Gaulle -- swept in to remove Vichy forces from Syria.

Syrian forces continued to resist the occupation, and the foreign troops were finally withdrawn in 1946.

The following years were marked by political upheaval, an ill-fated union with Egypt, and various military takeovers until Hafez Al Assad gained lasting power in a 1970 coup. The Alawite leader is known for suppressing dissent, particularly from Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. His oppressive behavior culminated in a brutal massacre in the city of Hama in 1982.

Hafez Al Assad held power until his death in 2000. His son Bashar ran for president unopposed, and has ruled the country ever since.

France's control over Syria from 1920 to 1946 was varyingly effective and sometimes brutally enforced. Its role as a common enemy helped to unite Syria's diverse factions -- though the country is 90 percent Muslim, there are strong divisions therein between the Sunni majority and other groups, which include Shias, Druze, and the ruling Alawites.

Those divisions engendered ongoing violence after the European occupation was over, and vehement resistance to Bashar Al Assad's regime today shows that the discord is as rife as ever.

The Expatriates

France is now helping Syrians unite in a whole different way -- it has become a haven for activists and defectors.  

About 96,000 Syrians have so far fled their homeland for neighboring countries, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The number can only rise as violence continues, especially since 300,000 people inside Syria are currently displaced.

Troops are among those fleeing. On Monday, the Turkish Anatolia news agency reported that 85 Syrian Army members defected to Turkey at once, bringing hundreds of family members. Many generals have also defected since the protests began; Tlas could be the 15th, and he is certainly the highest-ranking.

France is by no means a common destination for those flying Syrian violence; by necessity, most have escaped to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, all of which share a border with Syria.

But the two countries' historical connection unites them on some level, and Paris today is home to a thriving base of anti-Assad activists.

Many of these exiles emigrated from Syria years ago, during the most brutal years of Hafez Al Assad's regime. Burhan Ghalioun was one of them.

Ghalioun, a Sunni Muslim, was the first chairman of the Syrian National Transitional Council, though he resigned in May. He was based in Paris for over 30 years, and worked as a political sociology professor at the New Sorbonne University.

In a July 2011 interview, he told Frances's ARTE journal that anti-Assad groups in France were hard to keep track of; new ones seemed to spring up every single day.

As a country, Syria was removed from politics for close to fifty years and only recently has seen the rebirth of political hopes and ambitions, he said. Several associations have been set up in France since the recent revolution.

Unity is key. These various coalitions incorporate activists of all different political leanings, said Ghalioun. They work together, aware of how detrimental divisions can be.

For these movements, it's more about seeing what they can offer Syria, preparing a return to the country whenever that becomes possible, and taking part in a transition to a democratic system. That's everybody's aim today.

That seems to be the aim of Tlas, as well. Though he was a member of Assad's regime and a commander in the Republican Guard, the BBC reports that he was the first regime official to meet with opposition forces last year, in an attempt to hammer out a solution and prevent widespread violence. His power was diminished in Damascus following his opposition to the crackdown. Days before his defection, he was reported to have said the Assad regime was taking the country to Hell.

Tlas would likely find a warm reception in France's capital city, where Syrian activism has strengthened over the past 16 months.

As Ghalioun explains, Syrians in France are waking up to politics and above all want to meet up and talk about the future of their country, especially the new generation which is discovering its political identity and new prospects.

And while Syrian violence continues to escalate and Hollande makes forceful calls for Assad to step down, Ghalioun says France is ready to play its role.

It is waiting in the wings.