Moscow Races to Save Assad; Washington to Head off a Turkish-Israeli Military Clash

The first 10 months of the Arab Revolt have produced the overthrow of just two rulers, Zin Ben-Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; two with one foot out, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen; and two still at the helm, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Bahrain and Bashar Assad in Syria. The focus has shifted from anti-regime protest to civil war and cross-border conflicts amid a busy game of musical chairs.
Some intelligence analysts, especially in the United States, foresee the wheel of revolt turning back to its starting-point this year – or some time in 2012 and slamming into the royal houses of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Some assessments go so far as to include the Turkish and Iranian regimes in the next cycle. Instability on the Palestinian scene is a given.
For now, the Middle East is beset with three wars – the six-month old armed resistance to the Assad regime and the two actively simmering conflicts waged against Israel by Turkey and Egypt.
Violent war rhetoric hit the airwaves from Cairo Tuesday, Sept. 13 when visiting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan delivered a diatribe entirely devoted to defaming Israel to the Arab League foreign ministers in session there.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked with misplaced faith that "common sense and cool reasoning would eventually prevail in Ankara." Erdogan, for his part, shouted: “States (meaning Israel), just like individuals, have to pay the price for murders, for acts of terrorism they committed so that we can live in a more just world.” He warned Israel that its government was "endangering its existence."


Washington and Moscow pull in opposite directions


These remarks amplified the accusation of casus belli which Turkish Prime Minister Thursday, Sept. 8 hurled at Israel's naval interception last year of a Turkish vessel bound for the blockaded Gaza Strip. In Cairo, he called Israeli "a terrorist state" deserving of military punishment by the international community exactly the same way as NATO dealt with the Libyan ruler.
On Sunday, Sept. 11, just one day after an Egyptian mob burst into the Israeli embassy in Cairo, wrecked its interior and forced the ambassador and embassy staff to fly home, Israel transferred its elite Golani Brigade, to southern Israel for deployment along the 260-kilometer long Egyptian border
This action was in tune with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz's comment Aug. 24 that the Israeli Defense Forces no longer perceived the Egyptian border as a frontier of peace.
Additional DEBKA-Net-Weekly analyses and reports in this issue will demonstrate how Washington and Moscow are now puling in opposite directions in the Middle East: The US is laboring to damp down the Turkey-Israel, Egypt-Israel fires before they blow up – at best into limited military confrontations – for the first time in the 10-month Arab upheaval, whereas Russia has stepped in to rescue Syria's Assad and bolster his regime.
In other words, while the Obama administration is striving the contain the initial fallout from the Arab Revolt and save Israel from being dragged into a regional conflict, Moscow has put up a big Stop sign in Damascus against US and NATO intervention.


Russia helps Iran help Assad


Russia has therefore walked away from its earlier bid to mediate an amicable settlement of the Libyan crisis and Assad's removal in harmony with Washington (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 500 of July 15: A new Troika: Obama, Medvedev and Merkel Set out to Cut Short Libyan War, Remove Assad), claiming it was deceived. The Russians accuse America of using Moscow's approach to Qaddafi to cover up its plot for his overthrow.
Three months on, they are resolved to prevent this fate overtaking the Syrian ruler.
Our Moscow sources report that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin assigned their top diplomatic troubleshooter, presidential personal envoy Mikhail Margelov, who is also chairman of the Russian upper house's foreign affairs committee, with going to Damascus and advising Assad on ways and means of subduing the revolt against his rule without incurring the backlash of US and European diplomatic and economic sanctions.
(See a separate item on Syria's decisive military operation for crushing the revolt)
On Saturday, September 10, Margelov declared his government would do everything in its power to save Syria from following the Libya scenario.


Ankara shifts military threats from Syria to Israel


Now for the first time in the ten months of the Arab Revolt, two non-Arab countries are keeping the Syria ruler on his feet against an uprising. In recent days, his Iranian advisers on tactics were seen putting their heads together with the Russian envoy and his staff. And while there is no solid intelligence that Russia and Iran are coordinating their aid shipments to Assad, it may be presumed that the holds of the Russian military planes unloading at Damascus military airport ammunition, night vision equipment and replacement parts for the Syrian tanks crushing the protesters do not carry the same cargoes as the Iranian planes bringing in mostly riot dispersal equipment.
Turkey too has shifted ground on Syria. Gone are the threats of imminent military intervention against Assad's brutal crackdown on dissent; its Prime Minister is no longer aligned with President Barack Obama on Syria.
Indeed the last time Erdogan and Obama discussed their partnership on Syria was more than a month ago on Aug. 11 after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called on Assad in Damascus. They decided then to raise the military heat on Syria incrementally, while supplying the protesters with logistics, money, intelligence and arms.
That decision has been overtaken by events.
In the light of Russian moves in Damascus – which DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report are closely tracked by the Turkish National Intelligence Organization-MIT – Ankara is turning its ire on Israel.


Turkey changes partners


As for Syria, on September 6, 2011, Lt. Col. Husain Harmoush, spokesman and de facto leader of the Syrian Free Officers Movement (FOM), was interviewed by a Turkish Official at one of the camps accommodating Syrian refugees from Assad's violence.
Shortly thereafter, he vanished. His whereabouts are still unknown.
FOM was established by defectors from Syria's armed forces who refused to fire live ammunition at civilian demonstrators. Some are known to have gone to ground at Jabal al-Zawya, an inaccessible, rugged region of northeastern Syria not far from the Turkish border. They have been carrying out hit-and-run raids against the Assad regime's Shabbiha thugs.
According to various Middle Eastern sources, Ankara handed Hamoush over to the Syrian authorities for the price of seven wanted Kurdish dissidents. Western and Arab intelligence sources confirmed that Turkish authorities held Hamoush in custody for a few days before surrendering him to Syria for almost certain torture and death.
Ibrahim Harmoush, the brother of the missing colonel said he would never have fallen into Syrian hands unless he was betrayed by Turkey.
That is not the only sign of Erdogan's double game on Syria against both the US and the Saudis, who are supplying Assad's antagonists with weapons via Jordan and Iraq.
On the one hand, he poses as the leader of the Western and Muslim effort to overthrow Assad. On the other, he is playing ball with the Syrian ruler and apparently delivering wanted protest activists into his hands.


Obama hedges his support for Ankara


DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts say that Ankara sees the logic of its dive into the murky swamp of intrigue and counter-intrigue surrounding Bashar Assad. Before embarking on even a limited military clash with Israel, Erdogan feels he must turn his back on cooperating with the US and NATO – even though Turkey is a member – and switch to cultivating the antagonists of US Middle East policy like Russia, Iran and Egypt.
Sensing this change of spots, US officials in Washington reacted cagily Tuesday, September 13, to a Turkish request for a fleet of US Predator drones to be deployed on its soil to support operations against the Kurdish rebel PKK hideouts in northern Iraq. The US government was said to have reached no decision yet on the request.
Only a week ago, the US was aiding the Turkish operation against the rebels (as reported in our last issue No. 508, of Sept. 9: First US-Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi KRG Armed Alliance: Their Joint Offensive against Kurdish Rebels).
Today, the Obama administration thinks twice about its support – and not just because of spiraling Turkish military preparations for confronting Israel, but in view of the threatening Turkish fleet movements in the Mediterranean, which are taking place without reference to the US or NATO.

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