Cairo hosted the makeshift headquarters of the Turkish, Israeli, Qatari and Egyptian intelligence chiefs who micromanaged the Israel-Hamas confrontation in the Gaza Strip. (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 566 of Nov. 23: The Gaza Campaign was the Brainchild of Intelligence Wizards Rather than Generals).
As soon as the Gaza ceasefire was in the bag on Nov. 21, key members of that group led by the US moved out to the Syrian theatre.
This week, from a headquarters in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, US, British, Qatari and Turkish military and intelligence teams were orchestrating a major intervention in the Syria war, with immediate effect on the rebels’ armaments, morale and successes in the battle zones.
They are now run by tightly organized military professionals and provided with arms and improved intelligence from a main headquarters established in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep (population: 1.5 million), 127 kilometers from Aleppo by road, and from its operational sub-branch in the smaller town of Antakya. This town lies on the banks of the Orontes River which flows from Turkey to Syria and sits smack on the Turkish-Syrian border.
The two stations, in place since mid-2011, have suddenly sprung to life, run on neat military hierarchical lines. The US team, though clad in civilian dress, is a mix of high-ranking army officers and intelligence personnel drawn from various services. They are the ones giving the orders.
Brits for special ops, Qataris and Turks for liaison, supplies and logistics
Next come British officers from elite forces. They oversee the small units they have deployed in the primary combat zones of northern and central Syria.
In southern Syria, American special operations forces are positioned along the border of northern Jordan along with Jordanian units.
Qatari officers attached to the coalition headquarters are generally in charge of supplying munitions and money to the various rebel groups. Their part in managing the Syrian revolt closely resembles their role in the Libyan insurrection which overthrew Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in 2011.
Many of the Syrian rebel groups are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or jihadists allied with Al Qaeda. They shun contact with Western military and intelligence officers, but are prepared to use the Qataris for liaison. The Qataris and Saudi intelligence – through its independent networks – run the supply operations to those rebels groups.
Through the two Turkish centers of command, the US, Turkey and Britain exercise control over the flow of weapons reaching the rebels.
Next down the chain are the Turkish officers. They fill two roles: They command Syrian rebel brigades and battalions. Without physically stepping across the border, they send out orders through trusted Syrian liaison officers.
A second Turkish team acts as logistics coordinator for the Syrian rebel arms fighting in different parts of the country, organizes their furloughs for R&R and medical treatment outside Syria, and keeps the entire logistical machine ticking over in three countries, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.
The new US-led Sunni bloc shoots for Assad’s ouster
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say that up until mid-October, the backing for the Syrian revolt was desultory, forced to constantly improvise and adapt to the inconsistencies of the ragtag Syrian rebels, who often ignored or disobeyed orders from headquarters in Turkey. Military assistance, hardware and funds were doled out according to their lackadaisical performance.
But in the past two months, professional and personal relations between some of the rebel chiefs and the Turkish command centers have looked up significantly.
The winds blowing through the Middle East changed course, especially in Syria, when Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani visited Gaza on Oct. 23 as the guest of the Hamas administration. This visit was seen by Sunni Muslims as the first blow against Shiite Iran’s drive for regional hegemony and influence in the Arab world.
Our military sources report that battlefield morale shot up when the US was seen taking the lead of a new Sunni Egyptian-Saudi-Turkish-Qatari alliance dedicated to standing up to the Shiite-led pact of Iran, Syria, Hizballah.
When key members of that group went to work in earnest at their Turkish headquarters with the avowed goal of ousting Bashar Assad and willingness to let the rebels have effective weapons, including anti-air missiles, the mood in rebel ranks swung around to high.
The rebels now go for strategic targets and arms stores
Their Sunni and Western backers were soon working in smooth coordination with one another and with the independent Saud intelligence operation in Iraq and Lebanon which pumps fighters and aid into Syria.
It was decided to establish a third command center in the Jordanian border town of Mafraq, to be manned by US personnel.
The Syrian rebels, hitherto mistrustful and sullen, turned cooperative. All of a sudden, they jumped to orders for military operations handed down by the command centers in Turkey and Jordan. Rival rebel factions were ready to drop their grudges and work together for the first time.
The results were spectacular as reflected in the following developments:
1. After months at a standstill, the rebels are gaining ground in Homs and Aleppo, helped by real-time intelligence on Syrian army movements. As soon as the soldiers leave their bases and head for combat zones, the rebels surge in. Priority is given to capturing bases housing large ammunition and weapons stores, providing the rebels with quantities never before available to them.
2. The rebels are now mounting coordinated attacks on such strategic targets as air bases, radar stations and Syrian military air defenses.
Rebels armed with anti-air missiles plus Patriots equal no-fly zone
They are not trying to wipe out the Syrian air force, because this is beyond their capabilities. Even if three or four air bases are destroyed, Assad is still left with at least 15 operational air facilities. The rebels are going after the bases where anti-aircraft missiles are to found. Capturing these spoils gives them their first anti-aircraft weapons for shooting down Syrian air force bombers and attack helicopters.
For example, after seizing the southern Syrian areas bordering on Jordan (excepting only the Ramtha crossing) on Nov. 25-26 – including the Marj al-Sultan military airport southeast of Damascus and the M-1 radar station guarded by the 82nd Syrian infantry brigade – the rebels went Thursday night, Nov. 29 for air defense bases around Damascus.
They were after the Russian-Iranian- made S-200 missile batteries located there.
This long-range, medium-to-high altitude surface-to-air missile system would be a valuable asset for the rebels. It would enable them for the first time to control the airspace over central Syria.
3. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say that once anti-aircraft missile systems are in rebel hands, the next step would be to link them up to the Patriot missile batteries which joint NATO and Turkish military teams began installing on the Turkish-Syrian border Wednesday, Nov. 28.
And so, without recourse to a Security Council mandate that would be blocked by a Russian or Chinese veto, a no-fly zone may well take shape over Syria.