Every round of bombing attacks on government targets in the 18 months of the Syrian conflict seemed to bring direct Western-Arab-backed intervention closer for ending the rule of Bashar Assad and the carnage sapping Syria’s lifeblood.
But each time, when the dust settled, nothing happened – even after the July 18 targeted assassination of four Assad insiders who shared responsibility for the estimated 20,000 dead and countless injured in the no-holds-barred civil war.
In the latest bombing spectacular, Wednesday, Sept. 26, two massive blasts damaged the General Staff’s main building in the heart of the Syrian capital. Heavy exchanges of fire between government and rebel forces ensued. Witnesses reported casualties on both sides. After first claiming no military personnel were hurt, Syria state TV reported four dead. A day earlier, a series of explosions in Damascus hit a school used by regime forces as a security headquarters. Syrian sources reported seven injured.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that both sides are now set for the bombing attacks to roll on this weekend. The rebels are again looking skyward, hoping their foreign backers will finally impose a no-fly zone over Syria.
Those backers, European, Arab and Turkish, are agog for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to announce this step when she leads the fourth Friends of Syria meeting in the first week of October in Morocco. (The date has not been finalized.)
Anti-Assad Middle East allies push for US-Russian talks on post-Assad Syria
They look forward to clear answers about President Barack Obama’s decision on a no-fly zone and if affirmative, what form it will take. Will the Obama administration commit itself in word and deed to actively protect a no-fly zone barring Syrian warplanes and helicopters from taking to the sky as in Libya? Or limit itself to aerial and surveillance back-up for an Arab-Turkish operation?
Tehran, Damascus, Ankara, Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi are all anxiously waiting for word from Washington: Will President Obama stick to his no-direct intervention posture or opt for leading the anti-Assad coalition’s initiative?
The proponents are pinning their hopes on Obama being swayed by two developments:
1. The murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens and four other diplomats in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11. By ducking direct action in Syria, President Obama may find he lays himself open to accusations by his Republican rivals of weak leadership in two major Middle East crises.
2. Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken up the slack and moved in for a role in the impasse.
Last week, he informed the leaders of the anti-Assad Middle East coalition – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamas bin Khalifa Al-Thani and Saudi Crown Prince Salman (who is acting for the ailing king) – that he had conveyed to Obama their proposal for the Russians and Americans to start negotiating the shape of post-Assad Syria.
Russia is ready for Assad to go with dignity
The Russian president, who until now vetoed every UN step against Assad, has predicated his new role on a number of conditions: It must be understood that when the Syrian ruler goes, he, his family and regime heads must be afforded a dignified exit; Syria’s minorities must be protected – especially the currently ruling Alawites;
Syria must not be fragmented. Hence – no semi-autonomous Kurdish state in the north.
Moscow is adamantly opposed to post-Assad Damascus gaining Islamic rule, especially by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has taken power in Cairo and Tunis.
Erdogan and Al-Thani are convinced that Russia will not, in the current circumstances, try to derail the imposition of a banned fly zone for Syrian warplanes by a veto at the UN Security Council and that even China would be satisfied with feeble condemnation.
Putin’s new posture on Syria follows his cutoff of arms supplies to the Assad regime and a radical policy change on Syria (first reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly 556 on Sept. 9: Moscow leaves Assad High and Dry: Shuts down Early Warning Stations in Syria, Recalls Missile Defense Systems.)
Safe havens depend on no-fly zone protection from aerial attack
As for the fly-zone, Turkey and the anti-Assad Gulf emirates have taken the first steps towards implementing restrictions on Syria airspace:
1. Free Syrian Army commander Brig. Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh announced Saturday, Sept. 2, the relocation of his headquarters from Turkey to Syria, without revealing its new location. This move is a gesture for asserting rebel rule over the areas they have wrenched from Syrian government control and which are now fully exposed to Syrian air force strikes unless they are forcibly restricted..
2. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have established a combined coalition air arm with French and British contributions. Blocks of Syrian air space have been apportioned among them.
3. They have addressed a collective plea to Obama for the United States to lead the effort.
Qatar’s ruler said Tuesday, Sept. 25: “It is better for Arab countries themselves to intervene out of their humanitarian, political and military duties and do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed.”
In an interview to CNN, he said there was also a Plan B for Syria. “You need to make safe havens, first of all. That would require a no-fly zone.”
French President Francois Hollande has also spoke out in favor of the UN guarding the areas “liberated” by foreign-backed insurgents in Syria.
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources learned late Thursday, Sept. 27 – just before publication – that the group’s appeal to the US president has failed. President Obama is still standing by the posture he adopted in the early days of Syria’s popular uprising eighteen months ago: No direct US military intervention.
Since the anti-Assad coalition is unlikely to go forward without America, the Qatari ruler’s Plan B which depends on a no-fly zone sinks into the sand for now.