The Syrian rebels’ Western and Arab sponsors have ratcheted up their military assistance by giving them tanks, 20 Russian-made T-62 tanks from Libya, debkafile reports. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the nod for the transfer to the rebels of their first heavy weapons during her brief visit to Istanbul Saturday, Aug. 13, as the prelude to the next step of the war. Qatar is paying for the tanks.
The Obama administration first agreed to Turkey arming the Free Syrian Army with FIM-92 anti-air Stinger missiles, as debkafile disclosed Aug. 11.
Monday, Aug. 13, for the first time in the 18-month revolt against the Assad regime, rebels shot down a Syrian Air Force fighter jet, a Mig-21, over the northeastern town of Deir al-Zour, using shoulder-carried Stingers. The Syrian government claimed it had crashed because of technical problems, but the rebels quickly released photos of the captured pilot, Col. Rafiq Mohammed Suleiman, surrounded by their guns.
The Syrian conflict has thus entered a new phase, the prelude, debkafile’s military sources report, to the creation of the first safe havens inside the country, which the FSA and other rebel groups will now be armed to defend.
Sources in Ankara report that Turkey has drawn up plans for carving out those safe havens between 5 and 25 kilometers deep inside Syrian territory and on its borders with Turkey and Iraq. Ankara is concerned less with the military aspects of those safe zones than with using them to relieve Turkey of the burden of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians who have fled and continue to flee across the border into Turkey as destitute refugees.
The supply of tanks and the Stingers lays the ground for the sanctuaries’ defenses against Assad’s warplanes and tanks, which until now had free rein of the skies and the battlefield.
The 20 T-62 tanks from Libya were unloaded last week at the Turkish port of Iskenderun, already painted over with FSA insignia. They were handed to Syrian rebel teams trained in tank warfare and have since crossed into northern Syria.
debkafile’s military sources: Assad is confronted with fateful decisions: The supply of heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels, the downing of a fighter jet by a Stinger missile and the prospect of protected enclaves cutting through the country, threaten to turn the tide of war against him.
Unless he decides to cut and run, the danger is greater than ever before of his turning to unconventional weapons to save his regime. He cannot carry on fighting if his armed forces continually lose face by seeing their warplanes depicted on world television screens blowing up in mid-air and their burning debris falling to the ground amid clouds of heavy smoke, clearly shot down by enemy missiles.
Bracing themselves for the contingency of Syria waging chemical and biological warfare, Israel, Turkey and Jordan have formed teams to work with the US military on setting up counter-measures and emergency medical aid in the event of those countries and US military facilities posted there coming under unconventional attack.
Deciding there was no time to lose, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak held long consultations through Monday night, Aug. 14, and by Tuesday morning had rushed through the appointment of Avi Dichter, former Shin Beit Director and Internal Security Minister, as home front minister in place of Mattan Vilnai, Israel’s designated ambassador to Beijing.
Dichter was picked because he has the administrative experience and practice in operational tasking needed to step straight into the job and start working without delay, in case it is necessary to grapple with a Syrian chemical attack even before Iran’s nuclear program.