Less than 24 hours after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu handed Bashar Assad in Damascus "a final warning," to stop the bloodshed or else, Assad demonstrated coolly that he is not scared by the prospect of military intervention or deterred by Ankara's caution that he risks the same fate as Muammar Qaddafi – i.e. NATO attack. The day after his Turkish guest departed, Wednesday, Aug. 10, he launched military assaults on three towns in the Turkish border region.
Tanks, armored vehicles and motorized infantry units pushed into Taftanaz and Sermin in Idlib province, less than 30 kilometers from the border, while troops entered Binnish, a town squarely on the border.
This exercise was also Assad's reply to the Obama administration's leaked report of Tuesday night that within the coming hours Washington would for the first time explicitly call on Bashar Assad to step down, like the marching orders the US gave the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
This strategy is so far in the red, with only one down (Mubarak) and two (Qaddafi and Yemeni President Abdullah Ali Saleh) still to go. Assad expects to join the latter group after outdoing them all in brutal repression.
He not only brushed aside the Davutoglu's demand on behalf of Turkey as a NATO member to cut down on his military operations against civilians, he expanded them Wednesday in the most provocative manner.
The five-month conflict between the Syrian army and rebels is now in its bloodiest week, raging on three fronts: In the north from Wednesday on the Turkish border, in the east, where Syrian tanks and artillery forces are knocking over the towns of Deir al-Zour and Abu Kamal near the Iraqi border and in two protests centers in the Damascus suburbs of Duma and Kharasta.
Assad was cheered on, debkafile's military and intelligence sources report, by the apparent weakness he noticed in the Turkish foreign minister when they conversed Tuesday. The Syrian ruler gained the impression that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is still wavering over whether to order his army to cross the border into Syria and he therefore decided to strike while the iron was hot.
By concentrating units so close to the Turkish border, Assad also gained an advantage in the event of Erdogan deciding to invade.
Assad found another sign of weakness in Erdogan's report that his foreign minister had obtained in Damascus a promise of political reforms and seen for himself that Syrian tanks had pulled out of Hama. There was no mention of the number of civilians killed before that or the public executions in the city's main square. The Turkish prime minister seemed to have forgotten that all Assad's past promises of reforms had proved hollow.
According to our sources, the Syrian president received new Iranian guarantees Tuesday night of a missile shield in the event of an attack by Turkey or NATO forces. This is tantamount to a promise that Iranian missiles would target Middle East air bases from which the assault planes took off and send troops to the aid of the Syrian army.
Assad therefore feels safe in discounting the new sanctions the US slapped down Wednesday night, Aug. 10 on Syria's biggest commercial bank, the Commercial Bank of Syria, and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, under a presidential executive order that targets proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their supporters. A separate order designated Syriatel, the country's largest mobile phone operator, for supporting human rights abuses in Syria.
He was not bothered by his increasing isolation in the Arab world after Saudi Arabia led the Gulf States in recalling their ambassadors from Damascus in protest against the unbridled blood-letting – any more than he moved by a possible NATO strike.
He views NATO as having failed in its six-month air Libyan campaign either to dislodge Qaddafi or destroy his army. It had the reverse effect of strengthening his regime. As for Western aid to Syrian rebels, government forces have managed to seize most of the weapons and logistical aid shipments they shipped into Syria.