Turkey this week hopped nervously between threatening Syrian President Bashar Assad with military punishment for his deadly assaults on civilian protest – and pulling back from the brink.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's mission to Damascus on Tuesday, August 9 fell into two parts, an aggressive "before" and a forgiving "after."
Before Davutoglu sat down for six hours with Assad, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan hinted very strongly that his foreign minister was delivering a stern military ultimatum from Turkey, NATO and the US, ordering Syrian troops to stop slaughtering civilians and return to their barracks – or else the Turkish army, acting on NATO's behalf, would mete out to Assad the same treatment as the alliance is giving Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.
But Davutoglu returned to Ankara a different man: "We have discussed concrete steps that Syria should take to stop its violent crackdown on anti-government protesters," he told reporters mildly. "We hope measures will be taken to stop the bloodshed."
More sweetness and light came from Erdogan: He announced with a straight face that his foreign minister had obtained in Damascus a solemn promise of political reforms – apparently forgetting Assad's hollow promises in the past – and gave him 14-15 day's grace to carry them out.
Erdogan stressed that Davutoglu had seen the tanks pulled back from Hama for himself, but he made no reference to the number of civilians who before that died at military hands or were executed in the public square.
Assad did not hide his contempt for Ankara
Sensing vacillation and weakness in Ankara, the Syrian ruler removed the gloves and published his version of the message he handed the Turkish foreign minister. No placatory promises only a tough pledge not to relent in Syria's "pursuit of terrorist groups."
This message was also intended to reach Washington which, Wednesday, Aug. 10, imposed new sanctions on Syria's biggest commercial bank and main mobile telephone company.
To make sure Ankara got the point, Syrian tanks, armored vehicles and motorized infantry units were ordered to enter three towns in the region of the Turkish border and start shooting civilians. The new victims are Taftanaz and Sermin in Idlib province, less than 30 kilometers from the border, and Binnish, a town squarely on the border.
To further underline his contempt for the Erdogan government, Assad snubbed Davutoglu by not sending the foreign minister to welcome him on arrival in Damascus – but his deputy, an official of inferior rank.
And finally, Syrian officials leaked a story that Syria intended reneging on its bilateral cooperation accord with Turkey for reining in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to punish Ankara for daring to criticize Assad's campaign against dissidents.
Damascus believes rebel backbone snapped
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources account for Assad's aggressive attitude on three grounds:
1. He was assured by his own and Iranian intelligence agencies that neither the United States nor any other NATO power had concentrated air or naval forces in the eastern Mediterranean for striking Syria.
2. Although Wednesday, Aug. 10, the Turkish forces poised for some weeks on the Syrian border were placed on a state of readiness, no reinforcements arrived to indicate they were indeed preparing for action across the border. Nor were there any new deployments at the Turkish military's rear bases, including its air and naval installations.
3. Current Syrian actions in the eastern towns of Deir al-Zour and Abu Kamal and two suburbs of Damascus appear to be the government's last major military operations against rebellious cities. Assad was well aware that this information had reached Ankara before Davutoglu set out for Damascus Tuesday. The same intelligence reached Washington too.
The reason military operations are about to wind down is that Assad and his military chiefs believe they have successfully eradicated the revolt in all of Syria's main cities. While minor flare-ups are still possible, they reckon that it will take the rebels many weeks if not months to recover and find sources for replenishing their depleted arms stores.
The army's next intake of conscripts melts away
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources disclose information reaching Washington – which did not come up in the Davutoglu-Assad conversation – and indicates that the Syrian ruler's belligerence may also disguise the trouble he is in over the growing alienation of his army, 80 percent of which are conscripts.
– Tuesday, August 2, when 6,000 new conscripts were due to report for compulsory active service, not one turned up at the Syrian armed forces' mobilization center;
– The failure of the 2011 draft compels Assad to prolong the active duty stints of serving soldiers and postpone the discharges falling due in September and October;
– Call-up orders for reserve units drew no more than a 30 percent response. Most of the reservists ignored the notices they received;
– The rate of desertions from army units is rising. In mid-July, 12,000 were reported AWOL, mounting to 18,000 in the second week of August.
Assad is therefore working against the clock. Unless he really has broken the back of the protest movement, zero conscription will break the army.