Officially, there is no Western-Arab military intervention in Syria. But unofficially, eight countries have been sucked into the Syrian maelstrom over nearly 20 months of horror after horror. They are Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Iran and Lebanon (through Hizballah). The US “leading from behind” is the 9th along with NATO.
To keep this unfolding reality under wraps, the national media of those countries are constrained by heavy official blackouts from revealing that the governments which vowed to stay out of “another Middle East war” have in fact been dragged into the Syrian morass.
On the other side of the conflict, this fact is also unreported by China, Russia and Iran. They prefer not to acknowledge the true dimensions of foreign intervention against Bashar Assad to avoid having to raise their military and other stakes in his survival. They too have their limits.
Turkey is sticking its neck out the most, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, and the United States is working hard to pull it back – largely by a policy of denial.
As recently as Tuesday, Oct. 16, US Ambassador to Ankara Francis Ricciardone was saying that Washington “doesn’t see the possibility of a war between Turkey and Syria,” when he met Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the American Embassy in Ankara. “We will put on our best performance, we are sharing intelligence with friendly countries,” the ambassador said.
America’s top soldier holds the Turkish-Syrian clash in check
But the diplomat’s innocuous presentation is a far cry from the true state of affairs: The Turkish-Syrian exchange of heavy fire threatens to explode into a raging battle. To hold matters in check and take up the reins “from behind,” the top US soldier was quietly sent post haste to Ankara last week.
For now, President Barack Obama is anxious to prevent a full-blown war between Turkey and Syria.
The world is therefore fed only select crumbs about the situation between them, such as the Turkish military buildup on the Syrian border and the periodic outbreak of Turkish-Syrian cross-border fire.
The forcing down of a Syrian civilian flight from Moscow in Ankara on Oct. 10 for a Turkish security search of its cargo was reported, so too were two Armenian flights carrying humanitarian aid to Aleppo.
On October 13, Turkey closed its airspace to Syrian civilian flights and the next day, Syria banished Turkish flights from its skies.
The reality is somewhat harsher. DEBKA-Net-Weekly discloses some of its unreported features:
Ankara and Damascus order jets to respect border
1. The Turkish air force and army have drawn a line 10 kilometers deep inside Syria for a protected buffer strip and no-fly zone – both barred to Syrian military ground and air access.
2. Turkish commanders have assigned the entire 20,000-strong Free Syrian Army and a comparable number of fighters from other factions – mostly European Muslims – to seizing and holding this 10-kilometer strip.
3. They are essentially led in the field by British, Saudi, French and Qatari special ops officers.
4. Small British, French, Qatari, Saudi and Jordanian special ops units are also conducting combat actions, including raids, against Syrian forces, which the non-professional rebel forces cannot handle.
5. This week, the rebels pressed on with their fight to carve out in northwestern Syria up against the Turkish border a safe haven for the thousands of refugees in flight from the violence. They managed to seize certain strategic suburbs of Latakia and Idlib.
6. Responding to Turkish tactics, Assad’s forces pulled their tanks and artillery away from the border and replaced them with the bulk of his air force in an attempt to check the rebel assault and reduce the pounding by Turkish air and artillery forces.
The Syrian air force is severely constrained by orders from Damascus to stay on the Syrian side of the border under all circumstances. Assad and his advisers believe that incursions are bound to ignite full-scale war with Turkey.
Iranian troops secure chemical warfare and missile stores
7. So Turkish jets continue to provide rebel positions inside the 10 kilometer buffer strip with as much cover as they can against Syrian air force strikes. They too are constrained by orders from Ankara to stay on their own side of the border and not enter Syrian airspace.
8. Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Ozel is in command of the campaign against Syria, in close liaison with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and US Gen. Martin Dempsey.
9. President Assad is reported by several Middle East intelligence sources to have assumed personal command of the battle with Ankara from a secret command post. He is said to have left Damascus and taken to wearing military uniform.
10. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, the Syrian ruler has descended to brutally simple tactics for crushing the revolt. A blanket order has gone out to his loyal troops to execute “scorched earth” campaigns across the country and use their heavy weapons backed by air power to destroy every single rebel stronghold in the country.
This week saw a record death toll of 1,471 civilian and rebel fighters, thousands injured and hundreds of houses destroyed. Some outskirts of the towns of Damascus, Idlib and Daraa have been declared “disaster areas.”
11. For now, Iranian officers and men and the Al Qods Brigades fighters flown into Syria in recent weeks are not taking part in active combat, although Iranian military advisers are attached to the Syrian high command. This could change, depending on the state of war.
At the time of writing this article, Iranian forces in Syria are being used for two missions: Defending and maintaining Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stores and its missile bases, including manufacturing and assembly plants.
Netanyahu’s first mention of possible Israeli intervention
Using Iranian personnel for these tasks frees up Syrian troops for combat on multiple fronts but, equally important, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources, foreigners such as the US, Israel, Turkey or even NATO will be deterred from attempts to commandeer Assad’s WMD lest they be deemed aggressors against Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu therefore chose his words carefully when he discussed the Syrian civil war with European Union envoys in Jerusalem Tuesday, Oct. 16. He said Israel "would do whatever was necessary to make sure that Assad's chemical weapons did not fall into the hands of terrorist organizations. If we fear this is happening, we shall consider military action in Syria," he said.
In Israeli parlance, terrorist organizations automatically include the Lebanese Hizballah.
It was the first time Netanyahu had referred explicitly to direct Israeli military action in Syria as being possible.
12. Monday Oct. 15, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, reported to the UN Security Council’s monthly meeting on the Mideast, that Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia was stepping up support for the Syrian government and had become part of President Bashar Assad’s “killing machine.”
Hezbollah leaders are also continuing to plot new measures with Iran to keep Assad in power, said Rice. She cited three developments:
Hizballah deepens its immersion in Assad’s war
– Hizballah troops are fighting shoulder to shoulder with Syrian units in areas close to the Syria-Lebanon border.
– Hizballah forces serve as the Syrian army’s strategic reserve in northern Syria, especially in the embattled sectors around the city of Homs.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources supplement this disclosure by reporting that Wednesday, Oct. 17, Hizballah moved some of the units and rockets facing Israel from south Lebanon and transferred them to the Homs front line. This is the first time that Hizballah hardware has moved back into Syria when its usual path is from Syria into south Lebanon.
– Hizballah units have undertaken responsibility for securing Syria’s strategic infrastructure and utilities – power stations, water plants, strategic bridges – and also Shiite shrines against Sunni rebel seizure or al Qaeda suicide bombers.
The prospect of Turkish-Syrian hostilities tipping over into a major clash of arms did not lessen after the 40-minute impromptu conversation Prime Minister Erdogan held with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Tuesday in Baku, Azerbaijan. Both leaders ended the meeting looking grim and tense.