Voices were raised and war threats exchanged on both sides of the conversation Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan held with Syrian President Bashar Assad's special emissary, former Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani (until 2009), in Ankara Wednesday, June 15.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report exclusively that Erdogan first pinned his Syrian visitor down with four tough questions:
1. When will Assad halt military actions in the vicinity of the Turkish border? (See also next article on the turning point in the Syrian uprising.)
2. Can Damascus be trusted to stick to its commitment to Ankara to refrain from sending troops against rebels in the big Syrian Kurdish cities of Amoda, Ifrin, Azez, Tall Afar, Qamishli and Kubani in the Al Haksa region?
Erdogan's main concern is with an old thorn in Turkey' side, the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), which has set up an efficient organization in the Kurdish ethnic areas of northern Syria along the Turkish border. The Syrian branch of the PKK is a hard-line violent faction which could be tipped over into terrorist attacks in Turkey by Syrian military operations.
Neither Turkey nor Syria gives an inch
3. Will Assad agree to an immediate, peaceful and humanitarian solution for the more than 200,000 Syrian refugees now parked on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border?
Erdogan made sure Turkmani understood that Turkey had no intention of being stuck again with masses of refugees as it was in 2003 when a million panicked Iraqis poured in after the US invasion of Iraq.
4. How does Assad propose to bring closure to his bloody contest with a disaffected opposition? By introducing democratic reforms? By allowing non-Baath parties to share power? By punishing the military and security chiefs who fired live ammunition and artillery shells against civilian demonstrators and killed thousands of Syrians?
Instead of answering the Turkish prime minister, the Syrian envoy fired back even tougher questions of his own:
– Why is Turkey massing military forces along its border with Syria?
– Will the Turkish army march into Syria as it did in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) in early 2003 to establish security buffer zones? Turkmani warned his Turkish host that Syria would hit back at any Turkish incursion by striking military targets deep inside Turkey.
– Is it true that US special forces preparing to strike inside Syria are poised at Turkish bases ready to go across – as Syrian intelligence reports?
– Why don't Turkish authorities put a stop to the arms consignments flowing from Kurdish centers in southern Turkey to anti-government Kurdish rebels in northern Syria?
– And why doesn’t Turkey seal its border against the flight of Syrian refugees?
The conversation ended as grimly as it began: neither Erdogan nor Turkmani gave an inch.
Erdogan mulls giving Assad a last chance
Thursday morning, June 16, sources close to Erdogan's office said that the Turkish Prime Minister is considering sending Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, or intelligence agency-MIT chief Hakan Fidan for a "final interview" with Bashar Assad. The suggestion was that this would be the Syrian ruler's last chance to cooperate with Turkey's demands. After that, he risked an Erdogan decision to opt for the course of military action.
However, the Turkish prime minister also needs to know if Assad has gone too far to step back – in which case he may refuse to receive a high-ranking Turkish envoy. He has already cut himself off from contact with the Americans and other Western parties, refusing to take phone calls from US administration officials or even Republican and Democratic Senators who for years made informal pilgrimages to Damascus to see him. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon also called several times and was told Assad was out.
Last week, Erdogan talked on the phone with the Syrian ruler, but he is unlikely to risk calling him now and is hesitating about even sending a messenger to Damascus.
What he now has to decide, according to some sources in Ankara, is whether to send Turkish military units across the border into northern Syria in the full knowledge that a Turkish-Syria war might well ensue, the first armed conflict between two Muslim countries since the Arab Revolt erupted late last year.
A spate of strident threats to US and Turkey from Tehran
The acute escalation of Turkish-Syrian tension this week has more than one incendiary ingredient:
First, President Barack Obama and Erdogan are reported by military and intelligence circles in Middle East and Persian Gulf capitals to have reached an understanding: If Syria shoots missiles against targets deep inside Turkey, as Hassan Turkmani threatened, the US would provide Turkey with the shield of the AEGIS missile interceptors aboard American warships in the Middle East.
Neither Washington nor Ankara was willing to comment on this information.
Second, Tuesday night, following the harsh Erdogan-Turkman conversation in Ankara, the Lebanese Hizballah's television station in Lebanon broadcast another Iranian threat, that went largely unnoticed in the West: Tehran would strike US bases in Turkey if that country attacked Syria or facilitated an operation against Syria from its territory.
Iran also warned the United Arab Emirates-UAE that any threat to the Syrian regime would spark a major regional conflagration. The broadcast bulletin ended with the allegation that Erdogan had accepted in principle the American plan which entailed a Turkish military incursion of Syria.
This broadcast threat came on the heels of warnings three senior Iranian officials issued this week against US military intervention in Syria.
US naval buildup in the region
An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said the Americans "are not allowed to launch a military intervention in any country of the region including Syria." He said any military action in Damascus would be doomed to fail like the military action in Libya. He attacked the Zionist regime and blamed it for provoking "terrorist and sabotage operations" in Syria together with the United States.
Iranian Vice President Reza Rahimi then accused the United States of preparing and executing "the slaughter of Muslims" worldwide.
Iran's ground forces commander Brig. Gen. Kioumars Heidari added: Any new military move by the US in the region will impose heavy costs on the country far greater than the costs it paid in Iraq and Afghanistan."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say that in addition to these threats, Hizballah moved some of its long-range surface-to-surface missile batteries from northern Lebanon to the center of the country.
Third, US military and naval forces in the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean and the Black Sea were beefed up. A key piece of this deployment was the stationing of the amphibious attack ship USS Bataan, which carries helicopters and 2,000 marines, in the Mediterranean.
Also stationed in the region was the USS Whidbey Island, a dock landing ship carrying 600 more marines, together with the USS Monterey which is cruising in the Black Sea. This vessel which carries advanced AEGIS missile interceptor systems is in position for intercepting surface-to-surface missiles launched against Turkey from Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
An anti-American government for Lebanon
Fourth, Washington and Ankara were taken by surprise by the sudden breakthrough to the formation of a government in Lebanon headed by Najib Mikati, made possible overnight by Tehran, Damascus and Hizballah after long months of political stagnation in Beirut.
Lebanon finds itself ruled by the most anti-American government in its history. All the key portfolios – defense, interior, justice and treasury – have gone for the first time to Hizballah loyalists.
Tayyip Erdogan has taken this lightning maneuver as aimed at shutting the door in the face of Turkish influence in Beirut. On top of his failure to gain a foothold in any part of the Arab Revolt, the Turkish prime minister finds his country hemmed in by hostile regimes. He himself has been dropped by the alliance with Iran and Syria of which he was an important part in the last two years for the sin of lining up with Washington.
In Ankara, there are seasoned circles who believe the ambitious Turkish leader will not suffer these setbacks in silence and may strike out by ordering the Turkish army to march into Syria.