The United States, Britain, France and Turkey are spearheading a plan to preserve Bashar Assad as Syrian president while cutting away his support system of relatives and political and military chiefs and replacing them with "moderate opposition" figures, debkafile reports exclusively from Washington and Middle East sources.Assad is lending the move qualified cooperation. Last week, he let the first foreign correspondents into the country to report from Damascus and even interview opposition members – although never far from his minders. He has also allowed Western go-betweens to establish mechanisms for "national dialogue" with opponents and rebel representatives as a mark of his willingness to gradually pacify protest and begin the process of democratic reform.
This move accounts from Assad's privileged position in US public statements. US President Barack Obama and other US officials have never said he must go – like the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian leaders – notwithstanding his uniquely brutal crackdown on dissent at the cost of thousands of lives.
This policy found public expression for the first time on July 1 when US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told CNN: "Al Assad has made terrible mistakes and obviously abused his people," but increasing pressure from the United States and Syria's neighbors may be pushing al-Assad toward more representative, responsive government."
debkafile's military sources are less optimistic. Profound mistrust on both sides raises huge obstacles in the path of this objective. Washington, London, Paris and Ankara suspect that the as-yet non-existent national dialogue will not stop Assad continuing to send tanks and live bullets against demonstrators. The Syrian leader suspects the West is using diplomacy to throw him off guard against Turkish military intervention backed by the United States.
He will not have missed the report Sunday, July 3 in Turkey's largest daily Huriyet. The article captioned "A Turkish Buffer Zone inside Syria," asks: "Could Turkish troops enter Syria without seeking Damascus' permission first, and set up shop there? You bet."
Our military sources point out that Turkish units have been deployed on the Syrian border ready to cross at a moment's notice for more than two weeks.
The Syrian president's Iranian military and intelligence advisers explain to him that a Turkish buffer zone would not just be there to care for Syrian refugees; it would become a stronghold for Syrian politicians claiming to speak for the opposition. They would establish a transitional administration there on the same lines as the anti-Qaddafi Libyan rebel authority in Benghazi which has already gained the recognition of 17 governments.
Assad's Iranian advisers warn him that the US and Turkey are preparing to apply to North Syria the lessons drawn from the Libyan conflict.
debkafile's sources add that neither Washington nor Ankara were prepared for another obstacle to their plans for Syria. The 300,000 residents of Hama, unaware of the diplomatic balls in play, are standing firm, determined to forcibly resist any attempt by the Syrian army to occupy their city.
The Syria ruler has therefore deployed large units around Hama, which are gnawing at its outskirts, but avoided ordering them to go into the city center. He knows that this order will result in a bloodbath savage enough to halt the Western bid for dialogue in its tracks and end the respite it has given him. More Syrians would then head for the Turkish border in their tens of thousands, giving Ankara the pretext for sending Turkish troops streaming into northern Syria.
Once again, all parties are eyeing the coming Friday to watch the number of protesters turning out in Aleppo, Syria's second largest town and its commercial hub. A sizeable outbreak of protest there would give Assad's grip on power another hefty jolt.