Another urgent bid for the US to lead an allied offensive against Syria’s ruling regime fell on deaf ears in Washington. It came Tuesday, June 26, from Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who is spoiling for action after a Syrian anti-air ambush downed a Turkish reconnaissance jet flying over Latakia last Friday.
In several phone calls to President Barack Obama, Erdogan argued forcefully that the incident provided the perfect opening for a Western-Muslim-Arab offensive, according to debkafile’s military and intelligence sources. This offensive, said the Turkish leader, could drive into Syria, create no-fly zones, attack regime and military targets and establish safe zones for rebels and refugees. The Turkish army, air force and navy stood ready for immediate action, he said, but the US must take the military lead in this operation – and not just “from behind,” as in Libya.
Obama replied the time had not yet come for direct US military intervention in Syria, and covert operations by American, British, Turkish and French special operations forces should continue inside the country.
Erdogan maintained that covert tactics would neither stop the bloody violence in Syria nor upend the Assad regime. Only the open exercise of American military might and logistic and military capabilities could work and without it Turkey was constrained from going forward on its own.
That disagreement was behind the mixed signals coming from Ankara over the Syrian shoot-down of the Turkish military plane – insistence on punishing Damascus, on the one hand, and statements that Turkey does not seek war, on the other.
Tuesday, the prime minister stated to parliament: “After this attack, we have entered a new stage,” he said. “The rules of engagement of the Turkish Armed Forces have changed. Any risk posed by Syria on the Turkish border, any military element that could post a threat, will be considered a threat and treated as a military target.”
Erdogan’s statement was couched in the future tense, meaning Syria was off the hook this time.
However, in the interests of muscle-flexing, Turkey’s media reported Wednesday that its military had moved forces including tanks up to the Syria border and placed them on “red alert” with license "to shoot to kill.”
This train of events shows Prime Minister Erdogan, notwithstanding his close friendship with the US president, is in the same bind on Syria as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is on Iran.
Ankara is more than ready to hit back at Syria, just as Jerusalem has been standing prepared for military action against Iran’s nuclear program. But both are held back by President Obama. He hopes that by keeping Iran’s key ally Bashar Assad untouched and diplomacy rolling, an accommodation with Tehran on the nuclear issue is attainable.
This has left Erdogan falling back on the stratagem Netanyahu employs with regard to Iran and HIzballah: tough rhetoric accompanied by inaction.
This did not stop Syrian President Bashar Assad from declaring to parliament Tuesday, when he introduced a new cabinet headed by Riyad Hijab: “We are in a state of real war in every respect of the word and when we’re in a state of war, all of our politics must be concentrated on winning this war.”
As he spoke, British special forces (whose presence in Syria was exclusively revealed by debkafile Monday) carried out two tasks: They helped rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, extend their control of territory in the Idlib province on the northern Syrian border with Turkey and Lebanon, and gave them badly-needed hi-tech communications equipment.
They also made it possible for the first Syrian opposition leader, Burham Ghalioun of the Syrian National Council, to set foot in Syria. Under their heavy guard, Ghailioun toured rebel-controlled local villages in Idlib for a few hours before crossing back into Lebanon. Assad’s heavies watched helplessly.
Our military sources note the resemblance of this method of operation to the tactic employed by British special forces in Libya in early 2011, when they set up shop at the rebel center of Benghazi and from there, organized resistance to the Qaddafi regime.