Syrian rebels allowed to attack Latakia from Turkish soil under Turkish air cover. Iran raises Cain in Ankara
Turkey has ratcheted up its intervention in the Syrian war to an unprecedented level, according to exclusive debkafile military and intelligence sources. For the first time in the three-year conflict the Turkish army is allowing Syrian rebel forces, including the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, passage through Turkish territory for their offensive to capture the northwestern Syrian coastal area where the Assad clan’s lands are situated.
Ankara’s support for the rebels is inclusive: Turkish troops are posted at the roadside with supplies of ammo, fuel, food, mechanical repair crews and medical aid for rebel forces as they head north. The Turkish air force gives them air cover and Turkish agents arm them with surveillance data on Syrian military movements ahead.
The Syrian fighter jet shot down on March 23 just inside the Turkish border was in fact downed in a dogfight with Turkish warplanes, while trying to bomb the rebel convoy heading for the new combat arena. Both sides preferred to stay quiet about the incident and its causes.
The rebels receiving Turkish military support are disclosed by our sources as belonging to two militias: The Syrian Revolutionaries Front under the command of Jamal Maarouf, which has gathered in remnants of the disbanded Free Syrian Army; and the Islamic Front, sponsored until recently by Saudi intelligence. They number around 4,000 fighting men including elements of the Nusra Front.
With powerful Turkish backing, this force has been able to carve a very narrow corridor into northwest Syria from the tall Jabal al-Zawiya in the Idlib region up to a point near Syria’s northern Mediterranean coast, thereby severing the northwestern link between Syria and Turkey.
This was the first time rebel forces had gained full control of a strategic corridor. First, they had to battle through and capture the towns of Kazab, Khirbet and Samra northwest of the coastal town of Latakia.
The Syrian army is throwing air, armored and heavy artillery strength against the rebels to stop them firming up their positions in those towns, while also aiming to regain command of the Syrian-Turkish border region.
The fighting Saturday, March 29 was most intense around Kasab.
This new development in the Syrian war raises two questions:
1. For how long can the Syrian rebels hold out against constant battering by superior military strength?
2. If the rebels are thrown out of their new positions, will the Turkish army come to their aid? If so, it would be Ankara’s first outright military incursion into Syrian territory and the first intrusion by a NATO member in its civil conflict.
Our sources in Ankara report that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is in favor of going ahead. He is vehemently opposed by the Turkish chief of staff.
It is this argument which triggered the banning of YouTube by the Turkish government Friday, March 28 – not the important municipal elections taking place Monday. A leaked recording published anonymously purported to reveal a conversation between Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, spy chief Hakan Fidan and a general discussing how to drum up a pretext for a Turkish attack inside Syria. A voice identified as that of Fidan appeared to suggest a missile assault as the pretext for a Turkish invasion.
Erdogan and Turkish intelligence chiefs are convinced that the leak was orchestrated by generals who are against deeper Turkish involvement in the Syria war
In the meantime, debkafile’s Iranian sources report that Tehran was so jittery about this turn of events that a Iranian military delegation was rushed to Ankara, arriving Saturday, to force the Erdogan to take his hands off the Syrian war by any means, including a threat to suspend oil supplies. The two sides are still talking.