Was it an unfortunate misunderstanding or calculated deceit?
What really went on in the six hours of shadow-boxing between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Damascus on August 9? Its immediate outcome was a paroxysm of violence against civilians in which Assad managed to outdo even his former efforts.
This was certainly not the intention of the Turkish foreign minister. Was Davutoglu the victim of an Assad exercise in deceit? Or did the Syrian ruler act on a misunderstanding?
At all events, the Turkish foreign minister understood that the Syrian ruler had promised to get straight down to winding up his military campaign against the protesters and order his tanks and mobile artillery to stop firing on civilians in Syrian cities the next day. And concurrently he would start introducing political reforms and bringing opposition political elements and protest leaders into government. This is what the Turkish minister was given to understand.
However, Bashar Assad came away from their conversation – or pretended to – with the reverse impression, namely, that he had been awarded more time to extinguish the rebellion against his rule.
And so he lost no time in pursuing his crackdown, taking it to new levels of ferocity.
On Aug. 10, contrary to the understanding Davutoglu believed he had achieved, Assad embarked on large-scale tank assaults on five cities, after first moving substantial armored forces into Syrian Turkish border towns.
Shiite populations pulverized
Sunday, Aug. 14, troops backed by tanks and snipers launched themselves against the residential Sunni and Palestinian neighborhoods of the port city of Latakia.
Monday, Aug. 15, it was the turn of Homs, Syria's third-largest city with a population of 1.5 million and outlying Damascus districts.
Tuesday, Aug. 16, the Syrian Army further intensified to an unequalled pitch its six-day onslaught on the eastern cities of Deir al-Zour and Abu Kamal, in the east.
All these operations were still going full blast at the time of this writing. The death toll running into scores – and more probably hundreds – cannot be authoritatively verified in a country which bans external and media oversight.
Friday, Aug. 12, debkafile ran the first media disclosure about the content of the Assad- Davutoglu conversation and its sequel: Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's briefing to US President Barack Obama on its content in a long phone call that morning:
A. The Syrian ruler asserted with complete confidence that the protest would be over in 10-15 days;
B. He had no illusions about the uprising disappearing for good and expected further outbreaks.
C. He promised to forestall fresh flare-ups by instituting genuine reforms.
D. He said that if the opposition carried the day in Syria they would move on to Turkey and so Ankara must be more patient with his efforts to subdue these forces.
E. The Syrian ruler asked for an assurance that Ankara "would not to use Syria for a Turkish (and therefore NATO) campaign against Iran."
Obama and Erdogan accede to Assad's plea for "patience"
And finally, Assad said earnestly that he would rather see Turkish than Iranian influence in Iraq and offered to help Ankara (and through Turkey the US) establish a foothold there. The Syrian ruler was at his old game of fostering old illusions entertained by some Washington circles that for the right incentives, he would burn his bonds with Tehran.
Obama heard Erdogan out, then agreed to heed Assad's request for more patience.
He was allowed 10-15 days – i.e., until Aug. 27, to prove he was cutting down on military operations and turning to political reform.
debkafile of Aug. 13 reported that by this maneuver, Assad won a grace period for crushing the uprising against him. And so, when two days later, Davutoglu stepped forward to contradict this interpretation and protest that he had given Assad a last warning – not a grace period for more bloody assaults on civilians – the Syrian ruler just carried on regardless.
President Obama, after watching the Syrian ruler make a mockery of the Turkish diplomatic peace maneuver, finally brought himself Thursday, Aug. 18, to tell Bashar Assad that he must go – as he did Hosni Mubarak: "The Syrian President must step down in the wake of a brutal government crackdown that has killed hundreds of people in his country."
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, the intelligence assessments reaching Washington and Ankara in the aftermath of the Turkish foreign minister's Damascus mission concluded that Syrian fire had gained intensity and the level of protest against the regime had consequently dropped.
This is not surprising: Syrian troops, even if they had qualms before, no longer hesitated before obeying their orders to shoot and kill civilians without mercy. The army was no longer plagued by the desertions hemorrhaging all ranks for months, but pulling together out of a sense that the rebels' defeat was within reach.
Assad is increasingly cut off and alone
But a small comment in one of these assessments hints that Assad does not have it all his way. It appears that as his assault expands, so too does his isolation from family, his own Allawite sect and the Syrian armed forces high command, whether because he chooses to isolate himself or because he has put himself beyond the pale even for his nearest and dearest.
This begs the question: Perhaps he was given extra time to finish off his as a deliberate ruse to push him into a corner.
The theory heard around Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the Pentagon and Gen. David Petraeus in the Central Intelligence Agency – but not necessarily in the White House whence President Obama launched his reelection campaign this week – is that Assad is left with few options for extricating himself from that corner. They are either unfeasible or reckless.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that some informed circles in Washington put the war option at the top of the list. They perceive a very real danger that Assad will catapult the region into armed conflict to ease his domestic pressures and turn international and inter-Muslim attention away from his egregious abuses at home.
Separate articles in this issue expand on some of those options.