Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu traveled to Washington Wednesday, Feb. 8, to market Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's latest Syria initiative to the Obama administration when he meets US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The scheme aims at bypassing what he calls the "fiasco" of the Russo-Chinese defeat of the Western-Arab Security Council motion for terminating Syrian violence and Bashar Assad's rule by embarking on an initiative with those countries "that stand by the people, not the Syrian government," Erdogan explained to the Turkish parliament Tuesday night, Feb. 7.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report exclusively that the Turkish leader hopes his plan will pit Western and Arab air and naval might against the Russian naval strength on hand for the Assad regime. It would establish a combined Turkish-Arab paramilitary monitoring force to occupy the principal flashpoint cities, declaring them “humanitarian zones” or “humanitarian cities.”
They would be placed off-limits to Syrian military and security forces and outside the regime's jurisdiction.
Erdogan timed his initiative to steal the thunder of the Russian move in sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov to Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad that day.
No regional air force is up to enforcing a no-fly zone without the US
The Turkish Prime Minister hoped to capture the lead of the Muslim-Arab front championing the beleaguered Syrian people. By showing Russia up as backing the villain of the Syrian drama, he sought to fuel Arab and Sunni Muslim mainstream resentment of Moscow.
The war-torn cities of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Zabadani, Deir al-Zour and Daraa are first in line for the project which is still a work in progress.
Our sources say Turkish military planners have not yet determined which Arab and Muslim governments will contribute to the force, or how it will gain admittance to Syria, attain control of the embattled cities and defend them against further Syrian attacks.
Erdogan claims he has commitments from Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates-UAE to jump aboard. He is now trying to bring Saudi Arabia into the operation.
To take off and operate in the Syria's "humanitarian cities," the force would require a substantial air umbrella for enforcing no-fly zones overhead.
The Turkish air force, though available, lacks the military and logistical technology for continuous around-the-clock surveillance with sophisticated intelligence support. The only power with the required capabilities is the United States, as NATO forces discovered last year in Libya. Without US command centers and spy satellites, NATO alone would not have been able to enforce the no-fly zone and carry out its offensive against Muammar Qaddafi's army.
Could America get away with "leading from behind?"
US President Barack Obama therefore found himself Tuesday, Feb. 7, saddled by the Erdogan master plan with tough dilemmas. Before a decision, he has to consider four cardinal points:
1. Is he willing to circumvent the UN Security Council as Erdogan proposes and so give Moscow and Beijing powerful ammunition against America? They would maintain that in Libya the Obama administration and NATO at least tried to cover up their breaches of Security Council resolutions, whereas in Syria their interference blatantly defies and downgrades the Security Council.
2. Is the US ready to intervene militarily in Syria as it did in Libya – i.e., leading from behind – this time behind Muslim-Arab forces instead of NATO?
3. Would Turkish-Arab ground and air forces engage in battle with Syrian military forces trying to retake the cities and hit back against heavy bombardments? None of them is up to grappling with Syrian military might – less so if it is backed by Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources add that Syria commands one of the most sophisticated and densely deployed anti-air missile forces in the world, as well as an air force fully able to take on intruding aircraft in dogfights or bomb the bases from which the no-fly zone aircraft are launched. Those bases are also within range of Iranian missiles.
Without the United States, the Erdogan initiative has nowhere to go. But if the Obama administrations goes along and agrees to lead it, major US naval strength including an US aircraft carrier might have to be called on to contend with Syrian air and missile capabilities. American warships would find themselves sharing the same water as the Russian naval carrier strike force docked in the Syrian port of Tartus.
Obama is in no hurry to plunge into a military adventure in Syria
In short, the scale of military intervention required in Syria would substantially top the NATO operation in Libya.
Leaving it to Turkish-Arab coalition carried the risk of extending the Syrian conflict beyond its borders and triggering inter-Arab and inter-Muslim warfare in other parts of the Middle East.
4. How far is Washington willing to stretch its relations with Moscow (see a separate item in this issue about Russia's Syrian policy) in the tussle over the regime in Damascus?
What if the US backed the Erdogan scheme for a no-fly zone over Syria and Russian fighter jets and warships knocked the coalition planes out of the sky?
In consideration of these perplexities, the Obama administration was extremely cautious in its initial response to Prime Minister Erdogan’s new initiative. Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney stated that the US is not considering arming opposition groups in Syria – giving him due notice that a broad US military involvement in Syria was out of the question for now.
Our sources in Washington and Ankara report that the White House was wary of receiving Davutoglu during his Washington trip. The Turkish prime minister pressed hard for a meeting, arguing that if the Arab and Muslim governments he had approached to join his coalition for Syria saw Obama receiving his foreign minister, they would view this as US support for the plan and join it.
When we wrote this, the White House has not scheduled a meeting with Davutoglu.
At the same time, the Pentagon and US Central Command have leaked reports that a preliminary review of American military capabilities has begun – just in case the president decides to call for them.