War tensions between Turkey, NATO and Syria shot up again Tuesday, Oct. 4, with the announcement from Ankara that Turkey embarks Wednesday on a 10-day "mobilization" exercise in the southern province of Hatay along the Syrian border, through which arms are being funneled to Syrian protesters. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is expected on the same day to visit the 7,000 Syrians who have taken refuge in Hatay from President Bashar Assad's troops.
DEBKAfile reported earlier Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad has for three months staved off a military attack by Turkey or NATO for halting the exceptional brutality of his crackdown on protest by explicitly holding Greater Tel Aviv's 1.2 million inhabitants under threat of missile retaliation.
Our military sources note that the Turkish exercise was announced the day after US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta held talks with Israeli leaders, during which he emphasized the importance of restoring ties with Turkey for deterring Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah menaces.
And a week ago, on Sept. 27, NATO's European commander Gen. James Staviris visited Ankara. Both visits were apparently part of the build-up for the Turkish exercise, which will involve the 39th mechanized infantry brigade and 730 reserve soldiers. Its target: the mobilization of reserves and their rapid transfer to the Syrian border.
The drill may well revive speculation in Damascus that Turkey is preparing to go ahead with a plan to carve out a buffer enclave inside Syria to protect civilians and provide rebels with shelter and logistical and medical assistance. The Assad regime would no doubt regard this act as a direct attack on sovereign Syrian territory by a NATO member.
The announcement from Ankara added that Turkey would soon announce a roadmap for further sanctions to be imposed against Syria in addition to those already underway.
Earlier Tuesday, DEBKAfile's exclusive sources reported:
For the past three months, Syrian President Bashar Assad has staved off a military attack by Turkey or NATO for halting the exceptional brutality of his crackdown on protest by explicitly holding Greater Tel Aviv's 1.2 million inhabitants under threat of missile retaliation. Iran and Hizballah are exercising the same deterrent. This standoff was the main theme of the talks US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta held with Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv Monday, Oct. 3.
According to Western intelligence sources, Syria, Iran and Hizballah have charted a coordinated military operation for flattening metropolitan Tel Aviv, Israel's financial, industrial and cultural center, with thousands of missiles launched simultaneously by all three - plus the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami firing from the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials have never publicly admitted that this threat is on record, but Western intelligence sources have reported that Israel reacted with a warning of its own: If a single Syrian missile explodes in Tel Aviv, Damascus will be first to pay the price, and if the missile offensive persists, one Syrian town after another will be destroyed.
The Israeli message to Assad cited the warnings Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other government members addressed in the past year to Hizballah, that if Tel Aviv comes under attack from its missiles, not only Beirut but all of Lebanon would go up in flames. Assad was given to understand that Syria would go the same way as Lebanon if it engaged in missile belligerence against Israel.
Bashar Assad's threat to Israel was very much on Leon Panetta's mind when he told reporters on the plane carrying him to Israel Monday for his first visit as defense secretary: "Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength," he said.
Western military sources say that he was not only referring to Syria, Egypt and the Palestinians by this and other statements, but pointing at the widening rift between Israel and Turkey.
The US official believes that this rift plays into the hands of the Syrian ruler and grants him the freedom to issue dire threats against Israel to hold Turkey and NATO back from using military force against his vicious regime. For Panetta, this is a prime example of Israel failing to project its military strength for diplomatic gains that would be beneficial to the West in the uprisings sweeping the Arab world. The loss of Turkish-Israeli military cooperation, albeit not initiated by Israel, ties the hands of the US and NATO against striking Syria. Those sources report that Panetta does not absolve Ankara of responsibility for this situation.
Syria first threatened Israel with retaliation on Aug. 9 when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spent six hours with Bashar Assad in an effort on behalf of his own government and NATO to persuade him to stop the carnage his troops were perpetrating against his people.
Davutoglu warned Assad that if he did not desist from his actions he would share the fate of Muammar Qaddafi at the hands of NATO and Turkish forces.
The Syrian ruler's response was harsh: From the moment a shot is fired against Syria, "it will take only six hours for Syria to devastate Tel Aviv and ignite the entire Middle East," he said.
Assad was spelling out the warning issued on May 10 by a close crony, international business tycoon Rami Makhlouf, who said then: "If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel. No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”
The barrage of Syrian threats was reinforced from Tehran Monday, Sept, 26 by Ayatollah Jafar Shoujouni, a close associate of the all-powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Shoujouni recalled that when he visited Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut last May, he assured him: "If Israelis come near Tehran, we will destroy Tel Aviv."
The Iranian cleric and the Syrian businessman spoke in the same vein in the same month. This was no coincidence. Their threat has since been repeated with greater emphasis to provide the Assad regime with insurance for its survival against foreign military intervention while continuing its pitiless onslaught on dissent.
Syria and Turkey are increasingly at odds, DEBKAfile's military sources report. This week, Damascus accused the Turks of smuggling automatic and anti-tank weapons to the protesters, claiming to have uncovered a consignment in the protest center of Homs.
Ankara has initiated the process of freezing Assad family members' bank accounts and assets whose worth is estimated at half a billion dollars.
Turkey is also weighing unilateral sanctions after the UN Security Council last week imposed an arms embargo on Syria although Russia succeeded in blocking a tough council resolution. Moscow was punishing the West for its military intervention in Libya and flatly opposed to giving NATO another such opportunity in Syria.
Damascus repeatedly warned Turkey in the past week of reprisals if its inspectors dare open freights on transit to Syria by ship, plane or land vehicle to search for embargoed arms.
At a time of dangerously spiralling tensions, there is no knowing when the Assad regime will determine that the first Turkish shot was fired and how it will retaliate.