Syrian soldiers drive refugees back to ghost towns. Palestinians join protests
The Syrian army went into action Tuesday, June 21, the day after the Assad speech, to drive back to their homes the nearly quarter of a million civilians who fled the towns and villages on the Turkish borderin the last ten days to escape military persecution. debkafile's sources reported sounds of gunfire and explosions coming from the hill refuges.
This appeared to be Syrian President Bashar Assad's answer to the phone conversation early Tuesday between US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister, after which a senior Turkish official gave Syrian President less than a week to make good on his promised reforms and end the violence against his populations.
In his speech Monday, the Syrian ruler called on the refugees to return to their homes under the army's protection. He tried for a caring note by explaining that "without their sons" those towns were "dead cities."
But his opponents had no doubt he was threatening displaced citizens who flouted his "call" with the same violent treatment he has meted out to the opposition since April.
Assad's determination to crush dissent by force is as steely as ever.
Contrary to reporting from Washington, Ankara and Damascus of up to 10,000 Syrian refugees who crossed into Turkey for shelter and a few thousand who took to the hills inside Syria, debkafile's military sources report that the real figure is nearer 250,000.
Sunday, June 19, Turkey began ferrying food, clean water and medical supplies to the starving and traumatized people hiding in the hills of northern Syria – many of whom had lost family members and all their belongings and property, their homes, businesses and crops destroyed and confiscated in such towns as Jisr al-Shugour. Turkish helicopters dropped supplies to people hiding in inaccessible places.
Ankara was not deterred from this effort by Damascus' warning that aid to the refugees and displaced persons on Syrian soil would be deemed foreign military action and draw an appropriate response. On carrier of this warning was Assad's special emissary to Ankara Gen. Hassan Turkmeni.
Assad is quite barefacedly showing he is not scared of a showdown with Washington or Ankara. He estimates that in the final reckoning, neither will venture military action against his regime and army. Even the US president strong condemnation of the regime's "outrageous" use of violence against the protesters saying it must "end now" told the Syrian ruler he still has time to play with; Obama still held back from naming Bashar Assad as responsible for the violence or calling on him to step down.
During the day, four civilians were killed in Homs and Deir al Zor as clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters erupted in Damascus and other towns. Although the government managed to bring thousands of pro-Assad supporters out on the streets after the presidential address, the situation in Syria may be approaching a crunch:
1. For the first time, large government forces went into Hama, the town which symbolizes Muslim Brotherhood defiance of the Assad family since the 1982 massacre. Thos forces face the strong risk of fierce armed opposition – which is why the army did not interfere with the anti-government rallies there until Tuesday.
2. Also for the first time, Palestinians from the refugee camps around Damascus have thrown their weight behind the anti-Assad opposition. Over the last weekend, small armed groups shot up buildings belonging to Assad sympathizers, such as Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian – Central Command and the PFL.
3. The US and NATO continue to pile up military assets in the Mediterranean and Turkey. The huge USS George H.W. Bush carrier cruising in the central Mediterranean opposite Syrian shores has been joined by the USS Truxtun missile destroyer which departed the Israeli naval base in Haifa on June 17 and the USS Barry guided missile destroyer which sailed out of the Italian port of Gaeta on the same day.
Also that day, Turkey assumed command of the Standing NATO Maritime Group-2 Response Force in the Mediterranean.
In Paris, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin issued another warning against military intervention in Syria on the Libyan model.
Monday, debkafile reported that some sources described Turkish military helicopters as infiltrating northern Syria on reconnaissance missions and NATO planning to fly extra troops from Spanish and Germany bases to the Izmir Air base in western Turkey.