Syrian dictator Bashar Assad can feel the noose around his neck tightening. France is now calling for a humanitarian corridor in Syria and multiple reports talk of a Turkish-Arab military action following an authorization from the Arab League. The U.S. is telling its citizens to immediately leave the country. War may be on the horizon.
On Thursday, the French Foreign Minister asked the Arab League to endorse a “secured zone to protect civilians” in Syria. France is also officially embracing the Syrian National Council, an umbrella of opposition groups and figures, as a legitimate body. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe played a game of semantics, saying France was not endorsing a military intervention for a “buffer zone,” while admitting that the proposed “secured zone” would need military protection to ensure the delivery of aid.
At the same time, Israeli officials expect Turkey to soon establish buffer zones within Syrian territory near the border to create a safe haven for civilians and military defectors. The Turks are already housing the leadership of the Free Syria Army that is waging an armed struggle against Assad. The Kuwaiti Al-Rai newspaper is being told by senior sources in Europe that the plan is for a no-fly zone to be enforced by Arab and possibly Turkish air power after the Arab League approves of it. The U.S. will be involved behind-the-scenes, offering logistical support but no direct participation. NATO has ruled out military action in Syria.
According to the report, the no-fly zone will not be limited to only stopping Syrian airplanes and helicopters, which have been rarely used in putting down the uprising. It will enforce a ban on all movement of military vehicles and artillery, forcing them off of the streets. It is hoped that Assad’s military will be forced to end operations “in less than 24 hours.” This account differs from the Israeli one in that it states that Turkey has ruled out sending its military into Syrian territory to create a buffer zone.
Turkish state television revealed on Tuesday that the commander of the army was evaluating the forces stationed along the border with Syria. The Syrian military is reinforcing its positions in the area, digging trenches and moving tanks behind trees. The Turkish government is telling its citizens returning from their pilgrimage to Mecca not to travel through Syria following an incident where Assad’s security forces fired upon two buses filled with Turkish citizens.
The U.S. is telling its citizens in Syria to immediately depart. Ambassador Robert Ford’s planned return to Syria has been canceled. It should be noted that the Obama administration waited to support military intervention in Libya until all American citizens had left.
Three cities near the Turkish border have become the focal points of the protests and the fighting between the regime and the Free Syria Army: Idlib, Homs and Hama, the lattermost being the base of the Muslim Brotherhood revolt in 1982 that was crushed by the regime. Part of Idlib is said to be free of the regime’s control. This makes it a candidate to be the Syrian version of Libya’s Benghazi where the opposition headquartered its revolution.
The Free Syria Army’s strategy is to create a safe haven in northern Syria near Turkey and then win international support for its fight to overthrow Assad. The leader of the Free Syria Army claims to have 15,000 defectors under his command, up from the number of 10,000 he regularly boasted of. This may be an exaggeration, but it is clear that the forces’ capabilities are increasing. It recently carried out attacks on the Air Force Intelligence headquarters near Damascus and the ruling Baath Party headquarters in the capital.
The rhetoric of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan towards Assad has become much more aggressive over the past week. He accused him of “cowardice” and said he’ll share the fate of Hitler, Mussolini and Qaddafi if he doesn’t resign.
“Just remove yourself from that seat before shedding more blood, before torturing more and for the welfare of your country as well as the region,” Erdogan said to Assad. He has been saying as far back as August that “the Syrian issue is an internal Turkish affair.”
Jordanian King Abdullah II became the first Arab leader to explicitly tell Assad to give up power. “If I were in his shoes, I would step down…If Bashar has the interest of the country, he would step down,” he said.
The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in a measure that only Yemen (where Syrian pilots are reportedly helping the regime) and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon voted against. Iraq abstained, likely out of fear of Iranian proxy Moqtada al-Sadr, who is standing by Assad. The Arab League is signaling its support for regime change by meeting with the Syrian National Council in Cairo. An advisor to the Secretary-General of the Arab League said sanctions are being prepared against Assad and that it is working on “uniting the Syrian opposition on a united vision regarding the future of Syria during the transitional period.” Syria has until the end of Friday to allow a team of 500 human rights monitors into the country.
Iran is standing by Assad, helping his forces to put down the revolution. At the same time, Iran tried to reach out to the National Coordinating Committee opposition group, which is opposed to foreign intervention. It is unknown if Iran is trying to build relations with the opposition in case Assad loses or if Iran is trying to split the opposition and empower the one opposed to outside help. Either way, the Committee rejected Iran because “no one trusted Iran.”
Russia has deployed warships to the Mediterranean Sea, which was widely interpreted as an expression of solidarity with Assad. According to one Arab newspaper, the Russian ships transported technical advisors to Syria to install advanced radar systems at every critical site. The advisors are said to be helping Assad set up the Russian S-300, an advanced air defense system, which the report says was delivered in recent weeks. Iran paid for the delivery. The Russians offered the same kind of aid to Saddam Hussein shortly before the invasion of Iraq.
Iran and Assad will not take this lying down, and Assad will not go down without a bloody fight. The Middle East is about to become an even hotter place.
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