On their way home for Thanksgiving, three US Navy's assault ships were just passing through the Strait of Gibraltar Saturday, Nov. 17, when they were ordered to turn around and set course for Israeli waters.
The USS New York, USS Iwo Jima and the USS Gunston Hall had just ended a six-month stint in the Middle East. Instead of spending Thanksgiving at home, 2.500 Marines were told to stand by until the latest spate of Israeli-Gaza hostilities settled down – or so said the official version. In fact, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, barring a last-minute change, the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group will be standing by for its next order, to deploy off the coast of Syria.
President Barack Obama is preparing, as soon as the Gaza situation stabilizes, to start engaging the US military and intelligence in direct intervention against the Assad regime in Damascus and a speedy end to the Syrian civil war.
He conveyed this intention in phone calls, made on open and secure lines in the course of the eight-day confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, to Qatar ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Salman, Jordan's King Abdullah, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Obama is weighing safe asylums and no-fly zones for Syria
Obama did not reveal exactly what military action he had in mind for Syria, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Turkey and the Persian Gulf received the impression he was finally coming around to the notion of safe asylum zones, some of them under the protection of US Marines, along the country's borders with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Safe zones were also under consideration for the Syrian border strip with Lebanon. The US president is also preparing to declare Syrian skies a no-fly zone for military and civilian aircraft.
All this would not only cut off the Iranian air corridor through which military supplies are ferried to Assad’s army, but also the overland corridor through Iraq, and Hizballah’s supply lines from Lebanon.
In addition, the Iwo Jima Group and other US Navy warships collected from bases in Turkey, Greece and Italy would throw a blockade around Syria’s Mediterranean ports, assisted by British, French and Italian warships.
Regional leaders gained the impression from their conversations with the US president that he was resolved – after the disastrous setback dealt Iran and Hizballah in Gaza by the loss of their “southern front” – on direct action for Assad’s removal.
He sounded convinced, they reported, that time was pressing: Unless the US steps in now, the Assad regime would weather the Syrian revolt and hang onto power for years to come.
If that happened, the military and diplomatic momentum the United States gained from Israel’s Gaza operation would soon melt away.
Reviving the Libya coalition for Assad’s overthrow
The US president is counting on outmaneuvering Russia in Syria and the active support of the approximate coalition which ousted Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in 2011: Britain, France, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Since Assad and/or Hizballah may well try and heat up their borders with Israel, separately or in unison, Washington is recommending that Israel redeploy the tens of thousands of reservists posted around Gaza this week to its northern fronts. It is hoped that Hamas will uphold the ceasefire negotiated in Cairo – for the time being, at least.
Washington’s plans to directly tackle the Syrian crisis are confirmed by the buildup of US warships this week in the Mediterranean and Obama’s withdrawal of his veto on NATO stationing Patriot missiles near Turkey's border with Syria as insistently requested by Ankara.
The deployment of Patriots on Turkish soil is not subject to Turkish parliamentary endorsement, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday, November 22, when he arrived in Pakistan to attend the D-8 Summit in Islamabad.
According to Article 4 of the Washington Treaty, “our soil is NATO soil,” he said. "The Turkish Parliament's permission is not needed for this process, as this is an action taken by NATO. The Turkish military will determine appropriate locations for deployment of the missiles," he added. "This deployment should be seen only as a defensive measure against possible attacks from Syria on the other side of the border"
Washington’s approval of the anti-missile missile batteries’ deployment on Turkey’s border with Syria is evidently the first overt move towards getting safe asylum sites and a no-fly zone in place inside and above Syria. The Patriots will come with US military crews for their operation. This will represent the first direct US military intervention in the Syrian conflict.
At the same time, US military personnel will also be dispatched to Sinai. (See separate article on US plans to secure Sinai and Suez.)