It is unlikely that without a green light from Washington, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan would have ventured to order Turkish Air Force F16 fighters to force a Syrian civilian flight carrying 17 Russian passengers from Moscow to land in Ankara.
This is what happened Wednesday, Oct. 10, to a Syrian Airbus A320 bound for Damascus. The Turks accompanied their action with a vigorous disinformation campaign. Their first report described a Syrian civilian flight from Moscow as carrying 35 passengers – later amended to 37 or 30 -and suspected of carrying military cargo.
A quick check showed that the only plane scheduled for departure from Moscow to Syria that day was a Syrian Arab Airlines flight RB442.
Shortly afterwards, Turkish sources reported a second Syria-bound passenger plane, which was not identified, was forced to land in the Turkish city of Adana. This report had vanished by Thursday morning. But by then, sources in Ankara were claiming that the Airbus had been carrying Russian missile parts for the Syrian army.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources, Moscow was correct in reporting 17 Russian passengers aboard. All of them, say our sources, were Russian military advisors in civilian dress for Bashar Assad’s army.
A green light from Washington
The green light from Washington clearly came with a Western intelligence tip-off to Ankara about the targeted Syrian flight and its cargo. Its interception was not spontaneous, but part of a plan.
It appears that President Barack Obama, who has for eighteen months vehemently opposed any American, Western or Arab military intervention in Syria, has changed his mind.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington and Paris disclose that the person instrumental in this U-turn was French President Francois Hollande.
The new Turkish initiative had a second facet. The Foreign Ministry statement issued in Ankara on the Airbus incident also announced that all civilian flights in Syrian air space had been stopped since “it was no longer safe.”
A moment was needed to grasp the significance of this statement. It was not the government in Damascus which was closing Syrian air space to civilian flights, but the government in Ankara!
The backdrop for the Turkish two-strike was laid out in Brussels: There, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, attending a meeting of NATO defense ministers, said for the third time in one day that the odds for Syrian use of chemical weapons had increased and a special US headquarters to deal with this peril had been established in Jordan.
(Back in mid-August, debkafile's military sources disclosed that similar headquarters were functioning in Israel and Turkey.)
A no-fly zone above and a buffer strip below
No one asked Panetta what his chemical warfare warnings had to do with Turkish fighter planes intercepting Syrian passenger planes from Russia, whether the two issues had been discussed by the NATO ministers, or what Ankara meant by stopping all civilian flights in Syrian air space.
But something unusual was clearly brewing.
Feeling the ground, Moscow and Damascus reacted cautiously to Turkish behavior.
Thursday, Oct. 11, the Russians asked Turkey for clarifications and denied the Airbus had been carrying missile parts, while Syria raised its air force alert level and let it be known via leaks to pro-Syrian media in Lebanon that its warplanes were patrolling Syrian skies to force any Turkish over-flights to land.
Since all Turkish planes, including those flying in from Persian Gulf destinations, had been ordered to stop flying over Syria, Damascus’ tit-for-tat reaction was pointless.
None of the parties involved, the US, Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran, are ready to come right out and admit to grasping the significance of Ankara’s extraordinary actions, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources sum up as the first steps towards instituting a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.
Moscow, Damascus and Tehran have certainly caught on: By subjecting all Syrian military targets inside a 10-kilometer deep strip of Syrian border terrain to heavy artillery shelling ever since Oct. 4, the Turkish army is carving out a buffer zone of that width.
And by intercepting a Syrian plane on Oct. 10, six days later, the Turkish air force has started halting Syrian air traffic and clearing its skies for a no fly zone.
Foreign intervention brings chemical warfare closer
The Turks may opt for a speedy process or inch forward step by step in tune with other developments – no one in Washington, Riyadh or Doha knows for sure, although Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who pulls the strings behind Arab support for the Syrian revolt, may hold some clues.
Interestingly, he paid an unscheduled visit to Doha Wednesday, Oct. 10, to discuss Syria with the Qatari ruler, Emir al-Thani.
But the US Defense Secretary, the Pentagon's spy agency the DIA and the CIA, are well aware of the perils entailed by Ankara’s initiative for bringing the Syrian civil war stalemate to a head. They are taking into account that Bashar Assad will interpret Turkish action as a repeat of the US-led NATO intervention in Libya which ended last year in Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow. And that is why Panetta is raising the specter of Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels and his three neighbors – Turkey, Jordan and Israel – as payback for Ankara’s steps.
In Syria, like in Libya, the Obama administration appears to be slipping gradually into military intervention. It is now trying to slow this slide down without applying the brakes.
Until now, the US president told anyone ready to listen that outside military intervention in Syria was unnecessary because Assad and his regime would be gone within six months.
The French president’s warning worked
However, French President Holland is reported by our Washington and Paris sources to have shifted Obama from his flat refusal to take any part in the Syrian conflict in a number of phone conversations in which he warned the US president that, unless he reversed his position without delay, three highly undesirable things would happen:
1. Assad would win the war. Hollande told Obama that the information coming from French intelligence showed the Syrian ruler had the upper hand against the rebels and was on the way to defeating them. This runs contrary to the CIA’s take and the impression conveyed to the public in the West that Assad’s days are numbered.
2. An Assad victory would be shared by Iran’s military and political leaders and boost their determination to pursue a nuclear bomb.
3. Russian President Vladimir Putin would be vindicated. He would have proved he backed the winning horse when he used his veto power to defeat UN anti-Syrian resolutions urging Assad’s removal. The Russian leader will have made himself a highly popular foreign figure in Iran, Syria, among radical Shiites like the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinians, admired by many Muslims for standing up to United States policy in the Middle East.