Russian Marines, Warplanes Head for Syria as Western Arms Reach Rebels
Breaking News: Turkey has just closed its territory to supplies of US and NATO arms for Syrian rebels. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan informed President Barack Obama of this sudden decision in a call Wednesday night, June 19, DEBKA Weekly’s exclusive sources reveal.
Erdogan explained he was closing this passage out of concern about a possible Russian payback and over rising domestic unrest. His action has cut off the main weapons supply pipeline available to the rebels, after Syria and Hizballah severed the lines from Lebanon and the route from Jordan does not reach northern Syria and Aleppo.
This is a rerun of the exercise Erdogan performed in 2003 when he denied President George
W. Bush access for American forces to enter Iraq from Turkey.
The events crowding in on the Syria conflict before and after the two-day G8 Summit (June 17-18) in Northern Ireland made an appalling situation even worse.
President Barack Obama’s frosty bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday June 17 only widened the rift between them.
The US president refused to budge on his long-delayed decision to send the rebels arms and insistence that Bashar Assad must go.
The Russian president was as immovable in his backing for Assad’s legitimacy and opposition to Western arms shipments for the Syrian opposition fighting to overthrow him. Should Obama try to impose no-fly zones, Russian planes would challenge them, he warned.
Following on the White House decision, NATO and Britain airlifted their first consignment of heavy weapons to the rebels in Syria that same day, undermining the credibility of the denials of such deliveries issued by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Russian president’s answer came back with the speed of a rocket. Upon his arrival home from the ill-fated G8 summit, Moscow announced Wednesday that two Russian warships carrying 600 marines and their hardware were on their way to Syria on the pretext of rescuing Russian nationals stranded in the war-torn country.
It was to be provided with Russian Air Force cover – so that any Western plans for a no-fly zone over Syria would have to take into account the presence of Russian air power too.
G8 summit eve saw 35 flights bringing arms to the rebels
Putin was above all irked to discover that many of the weapons that NATO and at least two European powers shipped to the rebels were of Russian manufacture. (A few were made in China or the West.)
He read this as a design by US, British and NATO intelligence to pit Russian weapons versus Russian weapons on the two sides of the Syrian battlefield.
Exclusive disclosures by DEBKA Weekly's military and intelligence sources shed new light on the organization of how those arms reached their destinations in southern Syria and Aleppo, the penultimate prize for both sides.
They were first picked up from three sources: the Libyan and Balkan black markets – mainly Serbia and Montenegro – and the NATO arsenals being emptied out in Afghanistan.
Then, for the past two weeks, three fleets of commercial aircraft specializing in handling “civilian” arms freights have been taking off from military air bases in Belgium, Holland, Tripoli, the Slovenian capital Ljubljana and Montenegro and flying to two places to unload their freights: Mardin in southeastern Turkey and Mafraq in northern Jordan, 80 kilometers north of Amman on the crossroads to Syria in the north and Iraq to the east.
American F-16 planes are stationed at Mafraq to shield Jordan from Syrian military retribution.
In the weekend prior to the G8 summit, 35 flights landed tons of heavy arms at these two airports.
The embattled arms route from Turkey to rebel hands
From Mardin, the weapons are transferred under heavy Turkish military guard to the Turkish-Syrian border city of Killis across from the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo, 40 km away.
Many Killis inhabitants now operate a smuggling pipeline to bring such necessities as food, medicine and weapons to the Syrian rebels fighting in Aleppo and Idlib. They use a corridor, one end of which is controlled by Turkish military personnel and the other by Free Syrian Army-FSA troops.
The convoys ferrying the weapons deliver them for distribution at Kweiras, the location of the Syrian air base nearest the Turkish border. Although Syrian and Hizballah troops are holding opposition-held positions in Aleppo to siege in their all-out offensive to retake the city, the rebels have managed to open up a gap in the encirclement for access to Kweiras.
On Monday and Tuesday (June 17-18), while the Group of Eight were in session in Northern Ireland, the Syrian air force bombed rebel positions around Kweiras, with the aim of cutting off the movement of the arms convoys from Turkey.
The weapons which have been delivered to the anti-Assad fighters are listed by our sources as follows:
SAM 7 surface-to-air missiles; 9K38 Igla-SA-16 Gimlet, a Russian man-portable infrared homing surface-to-air missile; and two made-in-the-US second-generation BGM-71 TOW wire-guided heavy anti-tank missiles and the MBT LAW Light Anti-tank weapon.
The shipments also include recoilless guns-RCLR mounted on jeeps.
On Tuesday, the second and last day of the G8 Summit, American and British spokespeople went to great lengths to depict the “military support” the White House had promised the Syrian rebels last week as no more than “hot air headlines.” Obama still preferred a political solution for ending the Syrian war, they explained, claiming also that the British Prime Minister David Cameron had backed away from plans to send arms to the opposition.
First arms shipments hold up Syrian army’s Aleppo offensive
The efforts to put the reverse spin on public statements were soon confuted by events on the ground. The new arms had already been spotted at rebel positions in Aleppo, prompting a pause in the fighting. Syrian army commanders and their Russian and Iranian war planners told the Syrian units, who had launched their major Aleppo operation on June 13, to hold their horses for an evaluation of the scope and quality of the arms reaching the rebels and the measures needed to counter them.
It was soon obvious that, to avoid mass casualties, Syrian army tanks with upgraded armor would be needed for charging back into the assault on the newly-armed rebel-held Aleppo districts. Orders were quickly placed with Moscow and Tehran for more advanced weapons systems to withstand the opposition’s new hardware.
Putin and Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must now determine what more to send Assad’s army in the way of tools of war.
But the Russian and Iranian leaders also faced major strategic decisions.
Western news headlines on the G8 summit depicted Vladimir Putin as isolated after most of his colleagues ganged up for a fruitless bid to make him back away from the Syrian ruler. But on the Syrian battlefield, he stands shoulder to shoulder with the ayatollah at the head of a strong alliance.
His actions in the first hours after the G8 summit showed the Russian leader has opted to escalate his duel with the Obama administration on Syrian soil. His future steps also depend on decisions taken in Tehran – and not just on Syria. They also hang on Ali Khamenei’s guidelines to Iran’s president-elect Hassan Rouhani on Syria and how they tie in with Tehran’s future nuclear strategy, more about which in the next article.