– Defecting Syrian General Flees to Turkey, Announces Formation of High Military Council to Coordinate Operations of 40,000-Man Free Syrian Army, Oust Assad
– US Official: Iran Shipping Munitions to Syria via Turkey; Russian-Operated Ship Sails from St. Petersburg, Briefly Detained in Cyprus, Unloads Cargo of Bullets at Syrian Port of Tartus
– The “Bear” Shows Its Fangs: Russia’s Outgoing NATO Envoy Rogozin Warns “Military Action” against Iran “Direct Threat” to Russia’s Security
This past week, Russia accused NATO of plotting military intervention against both Syria, where a civilian uprising and military rebellion is seeking to oust the Ba’athist regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and Iran, which has defied United Nations sanctions against its “made-in-Russia” nuclear power program. Both Damascus and Tehran are long-time allies and clients of Moscow, while the two former states are also locked into a mutual defense pact, signed in 2006.
Last Thursday, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council and ex-boss of the Federal Security Service (FSB/KGB), said he had seen intelligence indicating that NATO’s plans for a military incursion into Syria were “well advanced.” Kommersant quoted him as saying:
We are getting information that NATO members and some Persian Gulf states, operating according to the Libya scenario, intend to move from indirect intervention in Syrian affairs to direct military intervention.
This time it is true that the main strikes forces will not be provided by France, the U.K. or Italy, but possibly by neighbouring Turkey, which was until recently on good terms with Syria and is a rival of Iran with immense ambitions.
America and Turkey were even now possibly already refining options for a no-fly zone that would allow armed Syrian opposition fighters to mass in the designated areas.
Russia’s outgoing NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, was more direct. “You shouldn’t interfere in Syrian affairs. This is very dangerous,” he told reporters in Brussels.
With an eye to protecting Russia’s periphery, the combative Rogozin also told reporters that an attack against Iran is the same as an attack against Russia. “Iran is our neighbor,” Rogozin rumbled, “And if Iran is involved in any military action, it’s a direct threat to our security. But at the same time, we believe that any country has the right to have what it needs to feel comfortable, including Iran.” Rogozin, referring to this past year’s Arab Spring coups across the Muslim world and the recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, warned that more attacks on Iran could cause “a scorching Arab Summer.” For his part, career Chekist Patrushev accused Israel of provoking the USA towards war against Iran, a warning that Interfax published on Friday.
Patrushev and Rogozin would no doubt also voice strong objections to a proposal advanced by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in which Arab troops would be interposed between Assad’s security forces and protesters. Last August, he described Assad’s heavy-handed use of force against protesters as “fruitless,” and withdrew Qatar’s ambassador to Syria. Qatar’s prime minister heads the Arab League committee on Syria and has said killings have not stopped despite the presence of Arab League monitors sent there last month. Qatar backed last year’s NATO campaign that helped Libyan rebels topple Muammar al-Qaddafi, another long-time Soviet/Russian ally and client.
Meanwhile, on Friday, a US official revealed that “Washington has reason to believe Iran is supplying security-related equipment ‘including munitions’ to Syria in its crackdown.” The Iranians are secretly trucking the munitions into Syria via NATO member Turkey, which intercepted four shipments last week, but Tehran professed innocence in the matter.
The accusation comes after the head of the elite Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Major-General Qasem Soleimani, visited Damascus earlier in January. However, reports the Jerusalem Post on January 16, “Iran would provide aid to Syria if it came under attack by external forces, an Iranian Revolutionary Guards official told pan-Arab Al Arabiya news channel Monday.”
In March 2011, the Turkish Foreign Ministry revealed that authorities had forced two Iranian planes with suspect cargo flying over Turkey to Syria to land at Turkish airports.
At the time, Turkish media reports said boxes on the Russian-built Ilyushin plane contained rocket launchers, mortars, Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition, although there was no official statement on the content of the cargo. Last November, the Turkish government formally announced it would block all weapons sales and shipments across Turkish land, sea, and airspace to Syria.
More troubling still, but hardly surprising, last week Cypriot authorities briefly detained the Russian-operated cargo ship Chariot, which originated in St. Petersburg on December 9 and arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus on January 11. The ship was carrying four shipping containers of bullets, while Tartus is the site of a Soviet/Russian naval maintenance facility.
After leaving Cyprus with written assurances of heading for Turkey, not Syria, the ship then vanished off radar screens after apparently switching off its Automatic Identification System, which enables the vessel to be tracked. “Since it had changed destination, and (if) we would not have allowed it to go, the company could cite illegal detention of a ship,” a Cypriot official said. Rosoboronexport spokesman Vyacheslav Davidenko said the state arms exporter would neither confirm nor deny the report. “We do not comment on where our deliveries go, when they leave port or how,” he huffed.
Turkish Foreign Ministry official Selcuk Unal said the ship departed Tartus early Saturday and reached the Turkish port of Iskenderun later the same day. Unal said the ship’s captain confirmed that the ship had arrived from Syria, but would not confirm the type of cargo the St. Vincent and Grenadines-flagged ship may have offloaded at Tartus.
Arms trafficking expert Hugh Griffiths explains that the Chariot is “a purpose-built ship” that transports ammunition, explosives and missiles to “sensitive destinations” in the Middle East and Africa.
Incidentally, Cyprus boasts the European Union’s only communist government, the president of which is slavishly pro-Moscow, a fact that affords the Kremlin some strategic leverage in the eastern Mediterranean region. It may be for this reason that the Cypriots purposely violated the EU arms embargo against Syria.
Last summer, Cyprus experienced a disaster when 85 confiscated containers loaded with Iranian gunpowder exploded at a naval base, killing 13 people and knocking out the island’s main power station. The containers were seized in February 2009 from a Cypriot-flagged ship that was suspected of transporting them from Iran to Palestinian militants in Gaza via Syria.
From the relative safety of his exile in Turkey, General Mustafa Ahmad al-Sheikh, the most senior commander to defect from the Syrian army, has announced the formation of a “high military council” to coordinate the combat operations of the rebel Syrian Free Army. This move will create a serious wedge between Damascus and Ankara. Sheikh (pictured above) was in charge of security in northern Syria before defecting. In a media statement, he explained had deserted two weeks ago because he was sickened by the regime’s ruthlessness and the killings.
“This council, headed by Sheikh, will oversee military operations in conjunction with the Free Syrian Army (FSA),” Sheikh’s media advisor, Fahad Almasri, told AFP news agency. “It will also help organise defections within the army and will be in contact with officers in the regular army to encourage large-scale rather than individual defections.” Formed from deserters from the regular army, the FSA says it has some 40,000 fighters, possibly including hundreds of veterans of last year’s Libyan civil war.
Last Friday, thousands of Syrians rallied in Damascus to express solidarity with the rebel troops of the FSA (one of which is pictured above). Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group that initially opposed the use of force in the uprising but has now allied itself with the defecting soldiers, met last Thursday with rebel army chief Colonel Riad al-Asaad. According to the SNC, they agreed to “formulate a detailed plan, to include the reorganization of FSA units and brigades, and the creation of a format to accommodate within FSA ranks additional officers and soldiers, especially senior military officials, who side with the revolution.”
On Monday, random gunfire from pro-Assad militiamen killed five people, including a woman, and wounded nine in the restive city of Homs, while five soldiers were killed when they tried to defect during a clash with rebels in the northwestern province of Idlib.
The latest violence erupted a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Assad to “stop killing your people.” The Ba’athist regime’s harsh response to the 10-month-old uprising has killed more than 5,000 people, by a UN count. Syrian authorities retort by pointing out that 2,000 members of the security forces have also been killed. The deaths of 32 civilians and soldiers were reported on Sunday. Assad retains the support of core military units, his own Alawite minority, some minority Christians, and some majority Sunni Muslims.
The northern commercial city of Aleppo, like central parts of the country’s capital, has mostly escaped the turmoil, but this weekend security forces stormed Aleppo University campus in pursuit of students who staged an anti-Assad protest on Friday. Activists said dozens of students were beaten in the raid. Aleppo residents say Sunni merchants in the city still support the Syrian president and that authorities have recruited Sunni tribesmen from the countryside to patrol the streets.