The US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar swung into action with Operation Rent-a-General when they saw Syrian President Bashar Assad, with the help of Moscow, Tehran and Hizballah, stabilizing his regime at the end of ten months of savagely cracking down on protest and insurrection.
(See our last issue of January 26: In Syria, Arab Spring Goes into Reverse: Regime Change in Damascus? Only if Tehran Wills it).
The operation, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report, had been ready to go last September, but the Western and Arab planners were not of one mind about the need to get rid of Bashar Assad; nor could they decide who would take his place.
It was generally agreed at the time, especially by those governments' intelligence advisers, that international opinion and the Arab world would have a hard time swallowing their combined military intervention to unseat a second Arab ruler just a month after NATO-led Libyan rebels brought down the Qaddafi regime in August.
Western and Arab strategists decided it would be unwise to oust the Syrian ruler before the US, NATO, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had steadied post-Qaddafi Libya for fear of destabilizing the entire Middle East.
Looking back this week, those same circles rue that decision. Hindsight shows them that five months ago, they missed opportunities for regime change in Damascus, which were lost by early February 2012.
Then, the West, Turkey, Jordan and the Persian Gulf Arab states were at peak intelligence and military momentum and the Arab rulers targeted by popular Arab uprisings were still unprepared to take the buffeting.
Assad and backers devise methods to avert a second Libya
Syrian, Russian and Iranian strategists used those five months for a thorough study of the process leading to Qaddafi’s downfall and devised methods for preventing its repetition in Syria. Simulation exercises taught Assad how to crush and survive civilian protest movements. The beleaguered ruler was given layers of armor: an Iranian and Russian military umbrella, a ready supply of arms, ammo and replacement parts for his army and security forces, and all the intelligence he needed to forestall sudden lunges to unseat him.
He got extra insurance from the Admiral Kuznetsov Strike Group posted indefinitely at the base Syria granted Russia in the Mediterranean port of Tartus. The strike group led by Russia’s only aircraft carrier also includes a nuclear submarine and two missile destroyers.
Moscow's aid came with a diplomatic pledge to veto any UN Security Council resolution opening the door to outside armed intervention, commanding the Syrian ruler to step down or even condemning his tactics. Moscow made good on its pledge by blocking any effective sanctions tabled at the Security Council this week.
In the last week of January 2012, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report, the authors of Operation Rent-a-General reconfigured and honed their plan with a view to piercing Assad's ruthless strengths.
This time, Damascus would not be breached by NATO and Arab troops, as was Tripoli, but by his own military from the inside.
A vast clandestine network for soliciting Syrian officers
The rebel Free Syrian Army-FSA, contrary to the highly colored accounts of its feats, was clearly not up to the task. It was decided therefore to turn to the regular Syrian army for a force willing and able to overpower Damascus and take down the Assad regime. One general in command of an armored division and 300-400 tanks were all that was needed for starters. Once he was located, Operational Rent-a-General was in business.
But first, a media blitz was launched to prepare the way. The second week of January saw vivid accounts in all the popular Western and Arab media of brilliant rebel victories against Assad's exhausted and dispirited army. The last DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue (526) questioned the credibility of those accounts, including the casualty figures. To boost the media campaign, Saudi intelligence launched a new television channel broadcasting to Syria from the Al-Arabiya television studios.
Then came the two principle moves – one diplomatic and one clandestine:
The first was the Arab League's tabling of a Security Council resolution demanding that president Assad step down within two months and hand over power to his deputy for the establishment of a national emergency government with room for opposition parties. It was endorsed by the major Western powers, headed by the US.
Operation Rent-a-General configured to break into Assad's top circle
While the delegations haggled over the framing of a draft that would escape a Russian veto, the undercover operation was launched – and is ongoing as we write these lines. It is arguably the most ambitious clandestine assault ever undertaken by foreign agencies to subvert the upper echelons of a regular army of the size of Syria's 400,000-strong armed forces.
Intelligence agencies in the US, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar have spread out a net over hundreds of high-ranking Syrian officers from the rank of major general through major, and are trawling for recruits to spearhead a military coup to oust Bashar Assad.
This stratagem is seen by our military and intelligence sources as more analogous to the American covert tactic for toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 than the anti-Qaddafi operation five months ago. The CIA prepared the way for the US invasion of Iraq by subverting the Iraqi generals and colonels responsible for the defense of Baghdad to make sure they abstained from resisting the invasion. American agents worked through those officers' expatriate relatives living in the US and Iraqi officers recruited before the war.
Generals grouped by tribe, religion, sectarian affiliation
The Syrian conspiracy is a lot more elaborate: A nerve center in Washington coordinates the work of British, French, Turkish, Saudi, Jordanian and Qatari operations offices, each focusing on a different group of Syrian generals, many of whom are reached through their ethnic, tribal, religious, clan or class affiliations.
The pitch is simple: It is past time to stop the cruel butchery devastating Syria before the country slides into civil war or breaks up into warring cantons. The only way to halt the bloodbath is for the army to march on Damascus, evict the Assad family regime and install a military government to hold the reins for the transition to civilian rule and national elections
They are reached through diverse channels: Targeted officers are surprised by calls to their unlisted private phone numbers or their command centers through military communications networks. Some are reached by email; others find undercover couriers turning up on their doorsteps at home.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources disclose that the highest-ranking Syrian general reached so far is Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, an Orthodox Christian. He was approached through his church leaders in the Middle East and southeastern Europe.
Syrian, Iranian and Russian intelligence pick up on the conspiracy
The far-flung networks of contacts and negotiations thrown out by the Western and Arab allies were bound to attract the attention of Assad's security aides and his Iranian and Russian intelligence backers.
In a typically oblique reference, Tehran indicated Wednesday, Feb. 1, it knew what was going on. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's military adviser Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim-Safavi told Iran's Fars News Agency: “The US has given a role to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to direct regional developments in a way that they move towards these countries' interests in line with US policies and contrary to Iran's policies,” he said.
And on Jan. 25, Russian intelligence officials tipped Assad off to a Syrian general (unnamed) recruited by the Americans to lead a coup against him. This information was confirmed by Iran four days later.
Monday, Jan. 30, debkafile’s military sources reported exclusively that Assad had transferred the Syrian Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division under the command of his brother Gen. Ali Maher to battle positions in and around Damascus. He acted on information received that the West, via Turkey, had persuaded a commander of one of the Syrian armored divisions to roll his fleet of 300 tanks into Damascus, seize control of the city and overthrow the government.
Who will blink first?
The Syrian ruler is therefore fully aware of the Western conspiracy to turn his generals against him and is fully prepared to stand up and fight for Damascus.
Syria's fate in the next few days will hinge on the answers to three critical questions:
1. Will the Western and Arab powers be able to pull off their plan to raise a Syrian force sizeable and competent enough to overwhelm the loyalist units Assad has posted in battle stations in and around Damascus?
2. Will Operation Rent-a-General manage to penetrate the top circle of commanders close to Assad, causing the regime to implode and avoid a battle for Damascus?
3. Who will blink first in this undercover contest? The Russians and the Iranians? The US and the Arabs? Or even perhaps Bashar Assad himself?