The Middle East saw abnormally heavy NATO air traffic this week: Unmarked cargo planes landing in waves at air bases in Turkey were quietly airlifting fighters and weapons for the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army-FSA from Libya.
The fighters are being recruited from the various Libyan militias which fought the Qaddafi regime. About 3,000 have volunteered to fight with anti-Assad forces, accepting the purse offered of $1,000 plus a monthly wage of $450.
Upon landing in Turkey, the Libyan fighters and the arms shipments are trucked by night to FSA bases, most of which are located in the Iskenderun region of Turkey on the border of northwestern Syria
The arms distributed to the rebels are flown in from Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya, as well as Bulgaria, Romania and Montenegro. In Libya, arms dealers go around the big arsenals remaining there and buy up weapons on the lists received from Turkey. In East Europe, the arms merchants follow lists received from Western intelligence agents and local military officials.
The estimated size of the Free Syrian Army fluctuates wildly between 5,000 and 15,000 fighting men. The figure is hard to pin down – not least because of the varying rate of defections from the Syrian military.
Of late, the stream of Syrian deserters reaching these camps has swelled from a few dozen a week to several hundred.
The Free Syrian Army doesn't stand a chance without foreign back-up
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence experts, the fact that this renegade army of Syrian army deserters, mercenaries and volunteers, has begun organizing into military frameworks of companies, battalions and brigades, indicates it numbers thousands.
Still, our military sources do not credit reports of thousands of deserters per week. Western intelligence officials believe that no more than 4,000 soldiers have so far gone AWOL.
They receive military training from Western, Turkish and Arab army instructors, as well as civilian security consultants and ex-special forces trainers from the US, Britain, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar.
Every camp has a Turkish commander whose staff report to the US joint headquarters directing the Syrian Revolt from the Turkish town of Gaziantep, as we reported last week.
Present too at the training facilities are Western intelligence officers, some of them American, who brief FSA units on the various battle sectors before they enter Syria at the end of their training.
Any expectations of this mini-force managing to turn the tide of the war against Assad are dismissed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military experts as unrealistic in view of the inner structure of the Syrian army.
Of the 300,000 men in uniform, 200,000 are career officers and soldiers and loyal to the Assad regime; only 100,000 are conscripts. Mass desertions would only happen if the command echelon broke up or rose up for a coup against the regime. There are no indications that either eventuality is anywhere near.
Russia feeds Assad spy satellite intelligence
Is an invasion of Syria by the small rebel force probable? It is hard to see the FSA managing an orderly military incursion unless it is part of a major Turkish army and air operation carving out a military buffer area and enforcing no fly zones – at least in northern and central Syria.
The cards stacked against the deserter force were further augmented this week: Two Russian spy satellites monitoring military movements in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey, Israel and Syria began feeding Syrian President Bashar Assad's strategists precise intelligence on FSA units in Turkey and rebel concentrations within Syrian cities, our military sources report.
This new resource enabled the special Syrian armored forces stationed along the Syria-Turkey border to waylay the deserters moving back and forth, capturing some and liquidating many.
The daily death toll of victims gunned down day by day on Syria's borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan may not be counted in hundreds as claimed by Syrian opposition activists and the FSA but certainly amounts to dozens – and is rising. Since the Syrian ruler gained access to reliable Russian intelligence, he no longer seeks to capture deserters for information and has ordered his troops to shoot them on sight where they stand.
The presence of Russian satellites over the eastern Mediterranean also presages the imminent docking at the Syrian port of Tartus of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its fleet escort.
Assad prepares to fight outside Syrian borders
Assad is now preparing for the Western-Turkish-Arab effort against his regime to move into its next stage: The expansion of attacks on his forces from Turkey and Lebanon amid a major effort to spur the cities of Aleppo and Damascus to join the revolt against him.
To prepare for this, Tuesday, Dec. 20, the Syrian army conducted a large-scale air force, navy, special forces and air defense exercise. They practiced tactics for repelling foreign invasions by land, sea and air.
Units of Air Force fighters, fighter-bombers, fire support helicopters, air defense units and naval warships, took part in the exercise.
An airdrop by Syrian Special Forces was also staged to warn potential invaders that the Syrian ruler had no intention of respecting frontiers and would fight the enemy inside Turkey or any other country from which an incursion was staged.